Hands-On Kids' Museums Make Learning Fun Immersion and interaction are the name of the game at children's museums around the country. NPR visited WaterWays in San Jose and the Dinosphere in Indianapolis to see the next generation firsthand.

Hands-On Kids' Museums Make Learning Fun

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This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. When we first decided to produce a series on museums, one of our editors exclaimed that developing exhibits at children's museums must be one of the coolest jobs in the world. Well, that led to the piece you're about to hear. For our new weekly series on American museums, NPR's Neda Ulaby looks at the technology that makes children's museums so much fun.

NEDA ULABY: The most popular room in the San Jose Children's Discovery Museum in California is industrial, gray, filled with troughs and pipes and chutes and wheels and water.

(Soundbite of children's museum)

Ms. JULIA STONE(ph): That's a tornado water.

ULABY: Not really a tornado, but a water vortex rising from a pool. Eight-year-old Julia Stone is among dozens of kids ecstatically hurling blue and purple balls into the vortex, and through giant shooting jets that send the balls whirling around the room.

Ms. STONE: It did it, it did it, it did it. It's fast.

Ms. MARILEE JENNINGS (Executive Director, Children's Discovery Museum, San Jose): Its scientific content is around water pressure.

ULABY: That's Marilee Jennings, the museum's executive director. She says something as basic as water may not seem technologically advanced, but hundreds of kids dunk their germy little hands into this exhibit each day. Some even put down their heads and drink from it before a grown up pulls them away.

(Soundbite of child shouting)

Unidentified Man: Where should we put this one, Lizzie, for the water?

ULABY: Over 800 gallons of water filter through two sophisticated sanitation systems every five minutes. Jennings says that impresses visiting parents, many of whom around here, work in the technology sector.

Ms. JENNINGS: Technology is a controversy, I think, in children's museums and in our museum here in Silicon Valley because part of what we aspire to is to get kids away from the screen.

ULABY: Kids see enough screens, or so goes the prevailing wisdom. But kids are also attracted to them. The trick is combining familiar technology with stuff that captures their curiosity in new ways.

(Soundbite of children's museum video)

Unidentified Man: Look at those triceratops' horns. Those horns could kill. What do you think?

ULABY: A screen was the basis for a $25 million dinosaur exhibition at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Jennifer Pace Robinson helped turn the museum's IMAX-style theater into something called the Dinosphere.

Ms. JENNIFER PACE ROBINSON (Director of Exhibit Development, Children's Museum of Indianapolis): We have a full-dome sound and light show, so you're actually seeing a cretaceous skyline. You have clouds and pterodons that fly over head.

ULABY: Interaction and immersion are the key words here, with technology engaging all the senses, including the smell of trees and sweaty elephants.

Ms. PACE ROBINSON: You're going down a ramp and you start - it's a darkly-lit ramp, and you hear the kind of the buzzing of prehistoric insects. You hear a far off cry of a mother hadrosaur dinosaur looking for her baby. And when you turn the corner, and you finally enter the space, you come face to face with a T. rex.

(Soundbite of dinosaur at a children's museum)

ULABY: That is the moment when little kids can get seriously concerned. But the exhibit designers put a cave at this exact spot, where kids can retreat and put on dinosaur vests with spikes and little tails.

Unidentified child #1: I'm a dinosaur!

Unidentified child #2: I'm a big one!

ULABY: Three-and-a-half-year-old Cayden Sinstall(ph) and Ella Ullahan(ph) can still see the main exhibit but they feel safe in the cave. It's got fiberglass dinonsaur nests filled with soft, cotton eggs.

Unidentified child: These are (unintelligible) eggs.

ULABY: The space is designed for little ones to gather their courage. And it works.

Unidentified child: I'm not scared anymore. I'm not scared - I'm not scared of the center(ph) anymore.

ULABY: So Cayden and Ella and their moms venture in to what feels like a dinosaur-terrarium. Two tyrannosauri attack a fierce triceratops. There are raptors, duckbills, and gorgosaurs.

(Soundbite of dinosaur exhibit at a children's museum)

Unidentified child #1: Oh my gosh, there's a lot of dinosaurs.

Unidentified child #2: Oh my gosh, there's a big dinosaur and a little dinosaur.

ULABY: The skeletons are big. They grin through pointy, bony teeth.

Mr. SINSTALL: Oh, oh! Scared me.

ULABY: Cayden does not need much time to recover. He is surrounded, not just by dinosaurs, but games and immersive activities. At one station, he can virtually build his own dinosaur. At another, he can slide a screen on a track in front of a big predatory gorgosaur, that in real life had some health problems.

Ms. PACE ROBINSON: And you see her x-ray. And as you move the monitor across on the track, you see different broken bones pop up with information. That makes you see the dinosaur in a different way.

ULABY: The technology was actually adapted from the auto industry where it tracks problems on the factory line. Robinson says the museum often finds industrial technology useful.

Ms. PACE ROBINSON: And you also figure that if it's in a factory, that is probably pretty durable, and that it would have a better chance of holding up in a children's museum.

ULABY: That's a big issue. The technology breaks a lot. Maintenance is a major part of the budget. For Dinosphere alone, it's over $200,000 a year. Museum technical director Mark Dittmar(ph) is in the Dinosphere now, fixing a wonky computer.

(Soundbite of computer glitch)

Mr. MARK DITTMAR (Technical Director, Children's Museum of Indianapolis): During the day, we probably reset these a good six, seven times, just because of the kids. A lot of kids get mad at us when we're trying to fix stuff. We get kicked and punched.

ULABY: A sense of humor doesn't hurt when it comes to kids' museums and technology. Staffer Mukee Harris(ph) plays a paleontologist in the Dinosphere. He works in a life-sized excavation pit, helping kids dig a fake dinosaur out of a specially crafted sandy material that's trademarked by the museum.

(Soundbite of dinosaur pit at a children's museum)

Mr. MUKEE HARRIS (Worker, Children's Museum of Indianapolis): I'm going to dig right here.

Unidentified Kid: And I'm going to dig right here.

ULABY: The pit is a good example of what's called slow technology, technology that's there only to support play.

Mr. HARRIS: Are you trying to find bones from a chicken?

Unidentified Kid: Yes.

Mr. HARRIS: Or a squirrel?

Unidentified Kid: A squirrel.

Mr, HARRIS: Have we found a great big squirrel?

ULABY: The goal is to keep kids thinking about the exhibit's concepts. So guess what? Cayden and his mom can go to the public library kiosk in the Dinosphere and check out dinosaur books for free. They can return them at any public library in the state. Children's museums try to integrate high and low technology, says Kathy Hammacher(ph). She's an exhibit developer working on an upcoming show about castles and catapults. For the main exhibit, she took the Wii as inspiration.

Ms. KATHY HAMMACHER (Exhibit Developer, Children's Museum of Indianapolis): We were originally going to have them throw things at a real castle wall, but then we thought, it's going to end up with little brother getting put in the catapult.

ULABY: Plus, Hammacher wanted kids to think about building as much as knocking stuff down.

Ms. HAMMACHER: So we wanted to come up with a way to turn it around and make the object to make a good castle that you couldn't knock down.

(Soundbite of children's museum floor)

Ms. HAMMACHER: All right, who wants to help me test this thing out?

ULABY: Hammacher is out on the museum floor testing the catapult prototype.

Ms. HAMMACHER: What do you think the point of this activity is? What are we trying to show you? Yes?

Unidentified Kid #1: Knock down the building.

Ms. HAMMACHER: Knock down the building. OK, what do you think the point is?

Unidentified Kid #2: I think it's to help people build a better wall.

Ms. HAMMACHER: Build a better wall. That's actually exactly what we're going for.

ULABY: The kids get guided through building a virtual wall and aiming the virtual catapult.

Ms. HAMMACHER: Well done, sir. You knocked down a ton of that wall. You guys think this is fun?

Unidentified Kids (In Unison): Yes.

Ms. HAMMACHER: Would you totally do this if it was in an exhibit?

Unidentified Kids (In Unison): Yes.

ULABY: Kathy Hammacher says children's museums tend to adopt technology pretty slowly. They don't have enormous acquisition budgets and kids tend not to care if something's high or low tech. They just care if it's fun. The biggest technological headache at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis may not be what you expect. Mark Dittmar, the technical director, says it's not the Dinosphere, it's the museum staff's BlackBerrys. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can find the rest of the stories in NPR's museum series at our Web site, npr.org.

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