Outside, a few feet from harbor waters, a blue-shirted staffer explains the “shock of the day” experiment. She talks about liquid nitrogen, pours it into a bottle and caps it. The crowd takes a reflexive step back, then: “BOOM!” The trash can goes flying, onlookers burst into applause and someone shouts, “Let’s blow up another one!”
It’s one of the parents. These kinds of places are really popular with parents.
In the past two years, the American Alliance of Museums has seen a 135 percent jump in membership among children’s museums and a 52 percent jump in science-technology centers.
It is growth fueled by increased focus on early learning; emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, called STEM education; and the success of these museums as community anchors and engines of economic growth. It’s also fueled by parental demand for sophisticated, play places that make for shared experiences.
These museums let parents thrill, right along with their kids, to all things that fizz, float, fly and freeze, and they help the family get in some really cool (covalent) bonding time.
Fully engaged in the process
“Anything with hands-on learning fun, I’m there,” says Latanya Bakari, a middle school science teacher from New Jersey who was celebrating her birthday with her husband, Perry, and 10-year-old son, Jahir. The trio hover over an experiment on cell membranes in the Science Center Wet Lab.
Perry, a juvenile mental health and drug counselor in Newark, says kids are too disengaged with the learning process and over-focused on the end product. You have to teach kids “the step by step,” he says, and that becomes a life lesson. “Even in my line of work, it’s important to speak to kids about the process of change.”
Museum staffer Annemarie Rush sets up the experiments and answers questions. Kids come in saying, “Ugh, science,” she says, but they come back excited about the stuff they never get to do in school. “It’s the hands-on thing,” she says. They hear teachers drone on and on about science, but then to see it work, to see how it works, it’s a different thing. It engages the physical and the mental.”
The Pacific Science Center, one of the first to use the term, opened in a Seattle World’s Fair building in 1962. In 1969, Frank Oppenheimer’s Exploratorium opened in San Francisco, and the Ontario Science Center opened outside of Toronto. In 1970, the Association of Science-Technology Centers had 20 founding institutions — including a number of older natural history and technology museums that were beginning to adopt the hands-on exhibit approaches of newer centers.