There is a new kind of science museum coming to the area — one where nothing is behind glass.
“People think of museums, and they think of a very passive experience. But now we’re kind of reinventing what museums are,” Cara Lesser said.
Lesser is the founder and executive director of the Kid International Discovery Museum (the KID Museum, for short), a hands-on science center opening in Bethesda, Maryland, on October 26.
Despite its name, “museum” doesn’t feel quite right for describing the new center. It’s more like a community art studio and laboratory, where visitors can experiment with wind tunnels, build drawing robots, try their hand at computer programming and construct sculptures out of cardboard.
And although the new space in the basement of Montgomery County’s Davis Library is full of fancy equipment — including several laptops and a 3-D printer — none of it is off-limits. Nearly everything can be touched, moved, taken apart and put back together. In fact, that’s just what the museum directors want you to do.
It’s all part of a new trend in science centers for kids, according to Bud Rock. He is president of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, which supports museums that focus on STEM. (That’s short for science, technology, engineering and math.)
Rock thinks museums of this kind are among the best for kids. “In many ways, you don’t become a scientist,” Rock said. “You’re born a scientist, and our goal is to help cultivate that.”
He explained that a kid’s way of thinking is a lot like a scientist’s. Kids encounter new things every day, so they have to come up with hypotheses, or ideas, about them and then test them.
Don’t believe him? Think about what you do when you find a new food on your dinner plate: You look at the food, make a hypothesis about whether you’re going to like it and then do a taste test to see if your hypothesis was right.
“When you do that, you’re doing exactly what a scientist would do,” Rock said. “Science is all about trying things out and seeing what works.”
Science centers help kids to do just that. But even though the Washington region has a lot of great museums, there aren’t enough hands-on facilities where kids can build and experiment, Rock said.
Nene Spivy, the executive director of the Children’s Science Center, noticed the same problem. For the past few years, her organization has been running a “museum without walls” in Northern Virginia, holding pop-up events at area schools and local festivals. This year, the center announced that it would take a step toward building a permanent home by opening a place called “the Lab” at Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax.
Considering that there are about half a million kids in Northern Virginia and that many of their parents work in STEM fields, “it just seemed like the right time and the right place” for a hands-on science museum, Spivy said.
The Lab won’t open until the middle of next year. But Spivy has ideas for what will happen there, including building papier-mâché volcanoes and constructing robots.
And she’s getting kids to help her with the planning.
Kavya Kopparapu, 14, of Herndon is one of the Children’s Science Center’s “youth ambassadors.” She gets to test experiments and give advice on what kinds of exhibits the Lab should have.
“I think that hands-on activities are really important because they show how fun science is,” Kavya said. “This isn’t something that’s just sitting and reading. It’s going out in the field and collecting samples and looking at frogs under microscopes.”
Kavya loves the uncertainty of experimenting — how she can begin a project and not know whether it will turn out as expected.
And when her experiment is successful?
“I feel excited . . . like I’ve eaten too many gummy bears,” she said.
Kavya, who wants to be a neuroscientist (someone who studies the brain), got interested in STEM through a Children’s Science Center exhibit she saw in fifth grade. The demonstration involved creating a foam out of yeast, dish-washing soap and hydrogen peroxide, and then spraying it out of a soda bottle.
“Afterward, everyone was talking about how cool it was,” Kavya recalled. “I knew I wanted to do experiments like that.”
Four years later, Kavya hopes to inspire kids to get interested in science the same way the demonstration inspired her. That’s why she volunteers with the Children’s Science Center and is helping with plans for the Lab.
The KID Museum and the Lab will be joined by a third hands-on science facility when the Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History reopens in July. The Spark!Lab has been undergoing renovations since 2012, but Kate Wiley, who works at the museum, says the updated space will be bigger and better than the old one. It will have an invention hub stocked with tools and lots of interactive opportunities to learn about inventions from American history.
Meanwhile, plans for expanded versions of the KID Museum and the Lab are already in the works. The KID Museum hopes to graduate to a bigger space in the next three years, and in 2019 the Children’s Science Center will open a full-fledged museum in Dulles.
Even though Kavya will be in college by the time the Dulles museum opens, she’s excited to be a part of the planning.
“I’ll be pretty old when it actually becomes a science museum, but I know all the little kids will really enjoy it,” she said. “That’s what makes it a really wonderful experience: Something that we’re creating today might be inspiring for kids five years from now.”
The KID Museum celebrates its grand opening on Sunday, October 26, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will be open weekends starting November 1.
Where: 6400 Democracy Boulevard in Bethesda.
When: Open Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
How much: $8; free on the day of the grand opening.
Best for: Ages 6 to 14.
For more information: A parent can call 301-897-5437 or visit www.kid-museum.org .
To get updates on the Children’s Science Center, a parent can visit www.childsci.org.