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Hey, Look at This! San Francisco’s Exploratorium Boasts Fun, Interactive Science

May 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
San Francisco's Exploratorium, one of the nation's most successful science and technology centers, has just opened its brand new location. Spencer Michels reports on how the center's hands-on teaching approach peaks the imaginations of children and adults alike.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next: the second of two stories on how to better engage students in the world of science.

Last night, we reported on a science program in Maine that encourages problem-solving.

Tonight, NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels visits one of the nation’s most successful science and technology centers, one that recently moved and reopened in California.

Our story was jointly produced with our PBS colleagues at KQED San Francisco.

SPENCER MICHELS: Popular science can be cool, intriguing and inspirational — that’s the operating principal at the new Exploratorium in San Francisco, a $300 million dollar building that just opened on the waterfront, designed to attract a million kids and their parents a year.

Some of the new exhibits have an artistic bent. And some are seemingly simple displays where you have to search to find the science.

ROB SEMPER, Associate Director, San Francisco Exploratorium: It’s sand on top of a rotating disk. It actually shows the connection between linear motion and rotational motion. And those kids might remember that when they’re taking some course in math or some course in science.

SPENCER MICHELS: Physicist Rob Semper is associate director of the Exploratorium.

 

ROB SEMPER: And the point is, having these experiences, rich experiences, is key to really being excited about what you’re doing. We don’t know where it will happen, but there’s so many exhibits here, we hope it will happen to everybody at one exhibit here or another.

SPENCER MICHELS: The new Exploratorium has 600 exhibits, 150 new ones. Among them is a whimsical statue of Frank Oppenheimer, founder of the center in 1969 and the brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who pioneered the atomic bomb.

For 44 years, the institution was housed in the landmark Palace of Fine Arts. Frank’s idea, revolutionary at the time, was to take a new approach to science learning, outside of school.

ROB SEMPER: Frank really felt that people needed to explore science on their own, not necessarily in the classroom, in a curriculum. So I think Frank had the idea that people would come to these places more than once.

NATE POLA, Student: I don’t remember every time since I was younger, but I think more than — definitely more than 50 times.

SPENCER MICHELS: It was a new concept that spread across the country and the world. There are 800 science centers today, places where you can touch everything, get your hands dirty, and experience scientific phenomena firsthand.

CYNTHIA KARR, San Francisco: It’s just the ambiance, the openness, the warehouse feel. It’s not manufactured. It’s just a neat place to be.

PAUL DOHERTY, Co-Director, San Francisco Exploratorium: Well, you could never do that with a regular magnet.

SPENCER MICHELS: Paul Doherty is a senior scientist who thinks he gets what Frank Oppenheimer was looking for.

PAUL DOHERTY: As soon as a person comes over and begins to interact with it, that brings the exhibit to life. We know we have a good exhibit when the person laughs and turns around and says to anybody passing, “hey, look at this.” That’s a good exhibit.

SPENCER MICHELS: As the Exploratorium matured, it expanded, exporting its model around the world. And when it couldn’t expand, it sought space elsewhere.

With much fanfare, the nonprofit organization launched its new high-tech solar-powered building on a refurbished pier on the San Francisco waterfront. Tickets are $25 dollars for adults, $19 dollars for children. As before, the museum is a combination of fun and science. Here, you can see what happens if both sides of your face were exactly the same.

For all its success, the Exploratorium out here on San Francisco Bay and centers like it raise some interesting questions. What is the most effective way for kids to learn science? And do these centers like this supplement or actually replace what goes on in school?

ROB SEMPER: School is very important. Reading textbooks is very important to learn science or to learn about nature.

SPENCER MICHELS: But, Semper says, school is not enough.

ROB SEMPER: Having a real experience is also important. So you actually need both. And, in fact, laboratories in schools often don’t do enough to help people really experience some of the phenomenon on their own.

SPENCER MICHELS: Take this tinkering clock, for example. Can it teach kids science?

ROB SEMPER: I have seen people stare at the mech clock, stare at the mechanism, get really intrigued by, how does that work? Why did it do it that way?

SPENCER MICHELS: One of the most popular exhibits at the old and the new Exploratorium is a huge mirror that visitors can watch for hours.

ROB SEMPER: It’s a mirror that was actually built for NASA for a space shuttle, for a flight simulator. When you walk towards it, all of a sudden, your head appears upside down, because it’s a curved mirror. It also makes your sound be magnified. We find people very intrigued by it. Then they try to figure out, how does it work?

The museum floor is our experimental space, and we study how people learn. We study how to make better exhibits.

SPENCER MICHELS: But while big science and technology centers like the Exploratorium can be exciting and attract thousands of people, some educators say a smaller, less expensive approach to out-of-school learning, with more emphasis on poor and underserved kids, can be just as effective in supplementing what happens in school.

Dan Sudran runs the Mission Science Workshop in San Francisco in a former high school auto shop. Much of the material available here, he gathered himself on a tight budget. For the kids he serves, it is essentially free. Its goals are similar to the Exploratorium’s, says its founder, but not completely.

DAN SUDRAN, Director, Mission Science Workshop: Some people come in and say, this is a mess. I said, yes, but it’s a controlled mess. But when kids realize it’s OK to have something of a mess, it’s kind of like OK to just make mistakes, because the world is kind of a mess.

I want all four of your guys to figure out your environment.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sudran began his workshop two decades ago, and it seems more down and dirty than its upscale cousin across town.

Today, a class of fourth-graders walked a few blocks from a nearby school to learn about animal habitats.

DAN SUDRAN: A lot of the teachers who come here feel somewhat overwhelmed, because they have so many other things to teach. And many of them don’t have a background that makes them confident in teaching it.

And they also realize that there’s something special about science that it doesn’t work to just download knowledge.

SPENCER MICHELS: Fourth grade teacher Robert Savant says he needs more support if he’s to teach science in a robust fashion.

ROBERT SAVANT, Fourth Grade Teacher: I can teach and teach in class, and they will get a portion, but here it really cements what I have taught in class. And you find that a lot of kids are not just visual learners, they’re not just oral learners. They need to be able to touch. This is a little more accessible for lower socioeconomic kids than, say, the Exploratorium.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sudran’s self-imposed mission is to reach kids in need and kids who live too far away to visit the Exploratorium.

DAN SUDRAN: And what we’re doing is going into primarily poor neighborhoods and cities in California. So, Exploratorium has been helpful to us. They have given us stuff.

But, like I say, I’m just a little bit of a nagger, a nitpicker, and I say, why such a concentration of resources? I’m working in East Side of Salinas, down in Fresno County also. And those kids could — they might as well be 10,000 miles away from San Francisco. The Exploratorium has this $300 million dollar capital fund. If we could get one percent of that, one percent, three million dollars, we could start 30 community science workshops in towns that I could name right now in California.

SPENCER MICHELS: For its part, the Exploratorium sends educators into underserved communities in the Bay Area and beyond to bring hands-on science to children. It allows free entry to those who can’t afford it. Plus, it has an extensive training program for teachers.

Physicist Linda Shore directs the teacher institute.

LINDA SHORE, Director, Exploratorium Teacher Institute: They come to us and we teach them literally how to take these large $50,000 dollar exhibits and make small tabletop versions of them for their classrooms, so that their students literally have an experience with an exhibit that they themselves have built.

SPENCER MICHELS: The wide goal of both the Exploratorium and the Mission Science Workshop is basically the same: not to replace school, but to inspire a keen interest in science by piquing the imaginations of children, parents, and teachers. And both institutions have existed long enough to show that they work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, you can watch a video showing how the Mission Science Workshop uses frozen roadkill and harvested whale bones to inspire students.