What’s the Most Important Thing to Put in a Science Museum? People

What makes a good museum for kids? I’ve written before about how the answer is not always technology. Kids like pressing buttons, of course, but if that’s all you wanted you could just go to the elevator bank at any office building in New York. In fact, when it comes to museums, kids are (to borrow a phrase) people who need people.

The Ontario Science Centre in Toronto is a massive institution a few miles outside of the city. There is a maker-space where kids can fit together various pieces of wood and use glue guns to make sure they stick together. There is an enormous room devoted to the functioning of the human body, with an area where you can watch a video of yourself running in slow motion and rowing machines that measure your energy. There is an imitation ultrasound machine where you can listen to a baby’s heartbeat. There is a room where kids can test out homemade instruments to learn about vibrations and sound. You can spend a week in there but you will leave with a massive headache and, unless your kids can read well and concentrate over the sound of hundreds of other children running past screaming, they may not get much out of the experience.

The one exception is a highly entertaining one-man show devoted to explaining how different kinds of energy work. The kids enjoyed the explosions, of course, but they were also completely engaged throughout the presentation because it was done by a real human being.

If you wanted to understand what was missing from the rest of the Ontario Science Centre experience, the answer could not be found in the exhibits. There is hardly a topic that is not covered. Rather, it was the dearth of staff. Whether it was trying to get help making your Rube Goldberg contraption to work or trying to understand why the vibrations from piano keys could make nearby slime actually change shape, there was almost no one from the museum around to answer questions.

The experience at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago was precisely the reverse. From the cashier who offered advice about which exhibits to prioritize (and which were her personal favorites) to the man conducting a demonstration of how hurricanes work, everywhere we looked there were knowledgeable staff offering explanations, answering random questions and giving impromptu presentations.

In a room devoted to robotics, a man demonstrated how drones work. A college student helped kids put together the components of a simple robot. Another presented a robot soccer game. In a room with a giant model train, a staffer was explaining the scale of the model and pointing out some real landmarks. In the weather room, a member of the staff had children walk around in a circle going the opposite way from a twenty-foot swirl of water vapor to show how opposing air flows can slow the wind.

Of course, there were the all-important buttons for kids to push, but there was no need to just run willy-nilly from one to another, since the real live human beings offered a far more engaging learning experience than any machine. This is a lesson more museums targeted to the young need to learn: For children who don’t always have knowledge or patience to read lengthy explanations, there is no substitute for a good teacher. It is obviously expensive to hire such a large contingent of helpful people. But, as a parent, I can tell you: it’s well worth it.

Image: Ontario Science Centre

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  • Jon Camp

    I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and it was a fun summer weekday activity to go the MSoI. Especially becuz back then they didn’t charge admission and we were summat poor, so it was a nice low-cost activity that kept my family’s 5 children occupied all day long. We went often enough that I knew the place well enough to be a tour guide for my 8th grade school field trip there. Good times!

  • Skookum John

    I was in my local science museum just last week, a decade after my kids outgrew it. I was dismayed to see how many of the displays that used to provide a hands-on immersion in physics have been replaced with kiosks where kids push the button and watch a video clip, and maybe lift a flap to see the answer to a question. There was little the museum provided that kids could not find in better quantity and quality on YouTube. No more pile of various magnets to play with. No more blocks to build arches and towers with. No more folding your own paper airplane and testing it in a miniature wind tunnel and launching it from a clever elevator 20 feet high. The place was an empty ghost town, of course. It was all very sad.