It's All Science to Me

February 18, 2018
Every summer from the time I was six to when I turned 13, I was enrolled in day camp. I painted and pottered at the local art museum, took "classes" at a summer youth college, and went on daily field trips with a city-sponsored program. The closest science museum— the Museum of Discovery and Science in Ft. Lauderdale— was a popular field trip destination and, in essence, an icon for South Floridian kids; two summers ago, I worked with someone my own age who had never been, though he, too, was born and raised in South Florida.

I tried to jog his memory— of course he'd been there before— by describing the iconic outdoor setup: a huge, automated rollercoaster-type structure that sends colored balls up, down, and around the museum courtyard. No? What about the IMAX theater? Or that room meant to make you feel like you're inside a kaleidoscope, directing the lights and patterns with a wand? The Mars rover simulator, the virtual volleyball, the turtles and stingrays, that weird, nameless thing that involves strapping yourself to a seatless chair and letting your friends spin you around until you're ready to puke?

You must remember the gift shop, I persisted. All those overpriced knick-knacks, the astronaut ice cream you're obligated to repurchase even though it's more nauseating than the seatless spinning chair? To my surprise (and undisguised disappointment), my tactics proved unsuccessful; he had really never been.

I would not consider myself a science-oriented person, despite doing well in the subject in school, but for whatever reason, I am big into science museums (don't get me started on planetariums or aquariums, ethics aside for a moment). In college, I worked part-time as an academic tutor for a program partly funded by a science museum, and my last semester, we moved to the shiny, new location overlooking Biscayne Bay and Downtown Miami.

I was given an informal "tour" my first day there, and my not-so-inner nerd thrived on the complimentary access given me by my newly granted museum ID card. Shiny and new as the museum was, I found myself disillusioned by the lack of interactive, hands-on exhibits. The ingenuity (at least in my kid self's frame of reference) I'd come to expect had mostly been replaced by tablets and touchscreens and things to be watched rather than engaged with.

At first, I wondered when and how museum curation became something of significance to me, and then I realized: the next generation of kids won't get to experience science the way my peers and I had. Will they find that favorite exhibit worth going back for again and again, or will the museum displays of today and tomorrow seem to them just an extension of the iPads, VR games, and drones they can use at home?

I grew up ten minutes from a "science playground" (different things hidden within the multi-level wooden park were intended to be "discovered"), and on the grounds was a children's science explorium. The best permanent installment, by far, was the frozen shadow room. You had ten seconds to strike the craziest pose you could come up with before the light flashed and "froze" your shadow to the wall. Would today's kids enjoy this as much as I did, or is interest in traditional science museums waning because of evolving technology?

Improved technology should, logically, make for the most innovative science museums. But what if it's working out to have the opposite effect? If interactivity is being replaced by all things digital—not to say that the two can't coexist, or coexist well, at that— can't you just put your kids in front of a screen at home and save both time and money? I guess there's a science to this, this new sort of development, a different kind of science from the principles that museums aim to educate the public on. What is it? Well, I'm no scientist, but I hypothesize that only time will tell.


  1. I love this. I reminded me of my hometown museum and going to the Discovery Place in Charlotte (which sounds a lot like the Museum of Discovery and Science actually)! I honestly still love it there as an adult. I never considered that children today will experience museums differently than us.

    1. I love that! I also (clearly) still have a thing for science museums.

  2. Your description of the museum (what it was like when you were a child) reminded me of the Museum of Science we have in Boston. It was one of my favorite places to go to for school field trips when I was younger! It made me a bit sad once you found out that the Museum of Discovery and Science in Ft. Lauderdale doesn't have as many interactive exhibits as it used too and that kids today just have more screens to look at. But hopefully, as you touched upon - there will be a way for the new and improved technology to provide a great and interactive experience for kids, once the museum curators have a better understanding of the public's reaction to the new museum setup.

    em's essentials

    1. I've only been to Boston twice and never had the chance to visit the science museum; I will definitely do so next time I'm in town! The Ft. Lauderdale museum is actually still very interactive. I visited a couple of years ago. (I worked at a different, not-as-interactive museum in Miami.) I have hope that curators will master the technology balance!