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The Exploratorium's hands-on science learning thrill ride

August 08, 2013|By Patt Morrison
  • Dennis Bartels, executive director of the San Francisco Exploratorium, gives gravity a going-over with his pet baseball. The new hands-on science museum is becoming a model for museums and science teaching.
Dennis Bartels, executive director of the San Francisco Exploratorium,… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

If there’s such a thing as science evangelism, it’s what they do at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

When it comes to the Exploratorium as a hands-on science learning thrill ride, it doesn't so much go out and spread the gospel as open its doors after it finds others knocking on them.

Dennis Bartels, the Exploratorium’s director, told me as part of my “Patt Morrison Asks” column interview that the Exploratorium is being consulted by museums as far away as Indonesia on how to do that not-at-all-mysterious scientific voodoo that it does so well.

A science center in Kuala Lumpur and two more in Turkey and Abu Dhabi are in the works, Bartels said. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in the Middle East and northern Africa wanting to create similar institutions – not for tourism or entertainment, but to help supplement and reform the way science is taught,” he said.

In the United States, besides a science center in Rochester, an Arkansas discovery and others, the Fort Worth museum of science and history “wanted to bring in interactive exhibits. They joined in a 12-year partnership with us where we loan them 40 of our exhibits at a time, and teach their staff how to use them,” he said.

As for the teachers who staff the state’s science, technology, engineering and math classrooms – the STEM training the Obama administration is pushing so hard to advance – Bartels said they may find something new, and sometimes unnerving, in the Exploratorium.

“We started beginning-teacher programs [for] teachers in the first year or two, to teach them how to get confident working with materials and letting kids run their own experiments," he said. "For a new teacher,  one of the scariest things to do is to let the kids turn on those Bunsen burners.”

Some veteran teachers have come back every summer for decades to freshen up their skills. “One litmus test of teachers who’ve been through our program is, when they get asked a question they don’t know the answer to, which every teacher does, [are they] BS-ing their way through or saying, 'Oh, we’re not on that right now?' Or do they say, 'Gosh, that’s a great question. How would we figure that out?' even though that was never in the curriculum. They need a place to [be told] they’re not crazy for being a little more creative and a little more bold and daring. Those are exactly the sort of teachers who inspired us when we were kids.”

And the Exploratorium is intended to make even lay people feel smart and adults feel like kids, which explains why fully half of the Exploratorium’s visitors are, well, unaccompanied grownups.

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