The Day I Worked at the Exploratorium

In early November I was lucky to join the Arkansas Discovery Network for a professional development workshop with the Exploratorium. The ADN has a long-standing relationship with the Exploratorium, which, to put it simply, is both like a “sister museum” of ours as well as a “mother ship” of science center innovation, insight, and creativity. I last visited the Exploratorium in December 2011 when it was at its original location at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. This was a wonderful experience, as I had just started learning about Frank Oppenheimer, its founder, during graduate school, and his key role in hands-on informal education. Now the museum is located at Pier 15/17 in a brand new facility, with down-right awesome tech features as well as being incredibly environmentally friendly. It was great to revisit this institution in its new setting, especially with my new position in the STEM/STEAM field.

During this workshop, professionals from institutions within the ADN (including the Museum of Discovery, the Mid-America Science Museum, The Art & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, and Amazeum) came together to learn from educators and innovators at the Exploratorium about audience engagement, teamwork, tinkering, and planning and implementing floor activities. It was invigorating, exhausting, and educational – but mostly fun!

The workshop took place from Thursday, November 7 – Sunday, November 11, and concluded with an activity on the museum floor (aka: I got to work at the Exploratorium for a day!!!) Our mission during this workshop was to design a “chain reaction”  tinkering activity or a Rube Goldberg machine. After designing the activity, we would then present it on the museum floor in the Exploratorium’s awesome Tinkering Studio.

I  am an official Tinkerer.

I am an official Tinkerer.

Our group began by first experimenting with circuits. This was neat, and a little nerve-wracking for some of the workshop participants. Educators, administrators, and executives attended the workshop, so there was a mix of academic and professional backgrounds – always a good thing for creativity! Some participants were more comfortable with circuits than others. After some basic circuit work we created our own mini chain reaction. Our supplies and materials ranged from wooden blocks, to deconstructed toys (think a dancing Santa toy without a face or costume), to Legos, pipe cleaners, and beyond. We also included circuits within our chain reactions, incorporating this element of technology as both a creative element, as well as a possible reactor to setting off the chain reactions. We paired into teams of two, each creating a mini chain reaction within a larger group reaction. This emphasized teamwork, as well communication within the larger group, to ensure each mini chain reaction impacted the next. One thing I found especially helpful about the organization of this activity was I was able to meet and get to know several individuals within the Network. As the new kid on the block, there were many folks to meet!

After we implemented our own chain reaction, we took our experiences and discussed the most effective ways to incorporate this activity on the museum floor. This part was a bit tricky. There were several nut and bolt issues to discuss. For example:

  • What was the age range of the activity? Should it be open to all?
  • How long should the activity last?
  • How many participants (or pairs?) should be allowed?
  • What supplies could (or should?) we incorporate?
  • Who should facilitate what? Or was facilitation necessary?
  • What was the most practical way to arrange the room?
  • How could other visitors aka non participants, become a part of this activity?
  • Should there be multiple sessions of the activity?

With a group of diverse museum professionals from multiple institutions of varying size and scope, we had several lively discussions on the most effective means to implement the activity. We had multiple brainstorming sessions within a day and half time period. In the end, we incorporated several of the group’s thoughts, while also utilizing our workshop leaders’ recommendations based on their knowledge of both the space and the activity.

The day of the activity arrived. We decided to have two sessions of a chain reaction. Each session lasted about 90 min, with visitors welcome to join throughout this period with the understanding of the time commitment. We decided due to the nature of the activity ages 10 – adult would be encouraged to partake, with a limit of about 12 teams in each session. There were several family groups, a few couples, and some groups of friends who joined together. The creativity of the multigenerational pairings was really neat to see. The age limit did cause some disappointment from younger Tinkerers, but most visitors accepted this caveat without any trouble. We arranged tables within the Tinkering Studio to allow participants ease of access to materials, as well as strong visibility to passerby, so other visitors could watch the session unfold. Materials included a range of ramps, wooden blocks, circuits, misc crafty materials, as well as fun supplies we purchased from Cliff’s Variety in the Castro District.

At the close of each chain reaction session a large group gathered to see the reaction take place. Both reactions went off (mostly) without a hitch. The most rewarding aspect of the activity was seeing the dedication of participants (90 minutes can be both a short and long amount of time, depending on your enthusiasm!) and their joy in watching the chain reaction take place.

The workshop was a terrific opportunity to facilitate on the floor of the Exploratorium and to learn from our workshop leaders about audience engagement techniques. In many ways I am still processing the trip and the workshop experience – so much of what I gained from the workshop came not just from implementing the activity, but also from exploring the museum floor, interacting and meeting professionals in the field, as well as visitors at the museum.

This post attempts to sum up a great professional development opportunity. Do you have similar experiences with professional development? What has been your best experience to date? I’d love to hear your experiences. Also, I’d be interested in hearing if anyone has been the Exploratorium since their reopening. Thoughts?

 

 

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