Like to touch a rocket? Museums can present educational experiences on a scale that few classrooms can match. And, as Ken Phillips, the aerospace curator for the California Science Center* explains, they can also provide a forum where families can learn together.
What kinds of exhibits are you responsible for?
My responsibilities include exhibits about anything that can fly that is not living. It doesn’t matter how high it can fly. It can fly in the atmosphere, it can go to the Moon or Mars or outside of our solar system.
That’s a lot different than you would find in a university or in an institution like, let’s say, the American Museum of Natural History. Most of their curators are very focused. You wouldn’t have someone whose responsibilities are spread across things that are flying in the atmosphere, astronomy and telescopes, planetary science and human biological issues in space.
I have a license to poke around in areas where most curators couldn’t. I can go and ask a legitimate question of experts that have focused on how stars are made, what they are made of, how much energy they put out—that sort of thing. It’s the most incredible learning opportunity.
Would you describe your job?
The staff here at the Science Center is really interested in communicating science to the general public.
We create the story line and the communication messages that we think are important for people to understand. Then we work with designers, sometimes in-house, sometimes out of house, to create different types of experiences to deliver those communications.
These can vary greatly — they can be simulations, traditional presentations such as graphics and text, or interactive computer programs and games. Once in a great while we can actually allow visitors access to part of the artifact collection.
What’s going on now with the museum?
We’ve got so much stuff, it’s frightening! In February of 1998 we opened the first construction phase of a three-phase project.
In that phase we had two of four theme areas open. One of those areas was The World of Life, which has to do with five common processes — creating, controlling, supplying, energizing and defending — that any living thing has to do. From a single cell organism to a human being with many trillions of cells, all living things do these processes, but in very different ways.
The other exhibit that we opened is called The Creative World. That has to do with technology that humans have created to solve three problems: transportation, architecture or structure, and communications.
We’re now designing our second phase, which is called The World of Ecology. This will look at biological and aquatic ecology issues on a global scale — we have an opportunity to look at how entire systems affect living organisms at different levels. We will be featuring live animals, mammals and some small aquatic mammals in their natural environments.
The third construction phase, which is scheduled to be opened in 2011, is the one closest to my heart. It is called The Worlds Beyond. This will be a fifty thousand square foot area that focuses on aircraft and design and space exploration. We’re also refurbishing what was called the Aerospace Hall here. We renamed it the Air and Space Gallery, and it should open in late summer of 2001.
What is it about the museum that excites kids?
The physical scale of things that you see in a place like this is much larger than you could create in your own home or classroom. If you come here and you look at one of our aircraft or a space capsule, you are literally inches from the real thing. One of our virtual stimulation experiences is high wire bike that goes across our atrium. Basically it’s a physics demonstration. It’s forty-three feet above the floor, and it’s on a one inch cable, and it rolls out about forty feet. It really gets your attention.
These experiences are more than momentary thrills that you leave behind when you run over to the next thing that attracts your attention. They are designed to really make you think about what just happened to you, or what you just did.
Secondly, there is the fact that the experience is voluntary. You can stay for as long as you like at an exhibit and when it’s no longer of interest to you, or if something else captures your attention, you wander over to it.
The third factor is probably the diversity of things that are here, because this is an institution that has exhibits in many subject areas. They are clustered around many themes.
Do you think that children are naturally interested in science?
That is a really good question. If you define science as a genuine interest in learning how the world works, I think there is a natural tendency to be interested.
For example, there is a lot you can learn about the world in science by casual observation. You look at the sun and it’s moving across the sky. You know it appears as though it’s orbiting the earth, so you can draw some conclusions about that. Now to tease out the real relationship between the sun and the earth takes a lot of work. It’s hundreds of years of work and a lot of debate and a lot of pretty painful times, I guess, for the original scientists that undertook that.
So, in answer to your question, my opinion is yes, up until a certain age I think there is a natural interest in science and in observing the world that we live in. But there comes a point where the skills that you need to to analyze what you are observing, developing those skills requires work and dedication. And I think that’s where a lot of people maybe choose to bail out. Because getting a deeper understanding of what the world is all about is like a giant scheme of hide and seek. Nature hides the stuff pretty well.
To really tease out the real secrets of the world and how it works takes a special effort and a special dedication. I don’t think it’s a dedication or an effort that only certain people can put forward — I think everyone has this innate ability.
But it’s a matter of preference; it’s a matter of how comfortable your initiation to science is. How was your first science teacher? Was it a memorable, enjoyable experience or was it not? All those things factor into it.
Do you have any advice for parents who would like to further their children’s interest in science?
Our research suggests that parents can be reluctant to enter into certain kinds of conversations with their kids because they don’t know an answer. From our perspective that’s the best position you can be in, because you can turn that into a learning experience.
You can say, “Well you know, we can go and figure this out together.” You go to a facility like ours. You can access information through television, radio, magazines or other publications. You can make a trip to the library for some quiet time reading together. All of these things are what I call little adventures that a parent and child can engage in.
Museums and science centers all interpret material very differently. You’ll get one set of experiences, which we hope are very rewarding, here at the Science Center in California. If you go to New York, to the American Museum for Natural History, or to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, or to Space Center Houston, the treatments that you get are very different.
If you are savvy at all about the museum or science center experience and you are at least somewhat comfortable with going into libraries, perhaps in communities that you haven’t visited before, then you’ve got a whole set of adventures, not just from your own location, but from wherever you travel.
Why is the type of education you get at the California Science Center important?
The Science Center can let you taste a little bit of everything. You can decide what really tastes good to you, and then go back and focus on that in your school and in your formal education.
The other thing is that there are not many places where parents and children learn together. That is really the rule here and it’s not really the rule in formal science education.
So it that sense, the science center is kind of lightning rod. A real opportunity for people to rub shoulders with scientists in a friendly and kind of casual way, but still learn a lot. They can sharpen ideas that they have already. They can expose themselves to things they never even thought of or even imagined before, and they can then go and choose, and decide what they want to become.
Thank you very much.