Touch and Learning In Science Museums

My sister and niece, observing fossils from behind glass.
My sister & niece, observing Plateosaurus from behind glass.

Recently, my sister and 2.5 year-old niece came to visit me at the natural history museum I work at. It was the first time they had come to visit this museum, but I know that my sister has taken my niece to the Acton Discovery Museums at least twice, so she has had some experiences within museum settings. What happened on their visit only reaffirmed my feelings towards the serious need for change at my home museum, and I got to experience first hand the frustrations of bringing a child to visit a science museum with minimal interactivity in its exhibit space.

Before I go any further, I just want to explicitly state that the views expressed in this post (and in all my blog posts past, present, and future) are the views and opinions of myself only, and do not reflect in any way the opinions of either of my employer museums. I think I’ve put that disclaimer in my “About” page as well, but I just want to reiterate it here. This blog is my way of understanding my field, expressing concerns and delights, and interacting with other professionals online; it does not seek to criticize beyond reason. So, moving on…

My sister and niece spent about an hour in the museum with me, primarily in the zoological galleries. We checked out the evolution gallery, the arthropods room (where my niece kept yelling “yuck!” and “gross!” at everything in jars, and my sister was completely obsessed with the tarantula), and went into the photography gallery, where my niece listed the animals in the room. We moved on to the fossil exhibits, but it was already becoming obvious that my niece was starting to lose interest. She was running, gently hitting the glass, and her constant question of “what’s that?” was starting to become less frequent. We got to the dinosaur gallery, and I was really hoping she would be blown away by Kronosaurus queenslandicus, our huge fossilized pliosaur; but alas, she was more interested in climbing on the benches and jumping in front of the window. She became momentarily interested in Plateosaurus, but only because my sister tried to engage her with the fossil by asking my niece to compare her feet (hands, head, etc.) with those of the dinosaur behind the glass.

This continued as we moved through the galleries, checking out the taxidermied animals in Africa and the New England Forests. My sister seemed pretty interested in how it was possible to preserve animal hides and fur for so long, and thought it was sad that the chest of our lion cub is literally bursting open; but these aren’t questions a toddler asks. She had some fun in the New England Forests, because she could touch things and we could pick her up to look in to the fallen logs and find different bugs and birds (more on that in a second). The Great Mammal Hall was engaging enough because my niece knew so many of the animals in the room, and ran around trying to find the ones she knew so she could tell us their names. But she was running, and jumping, and yelling, and being generally hyper, like kids are wont to do. Her reactions to the big cats in the Asia gallery were funny (each of the cats has a snarl on its face, which didn’t scare my niece, but every time she saw one she said, “He’s going to get us!”), and she seemed mildly interested in looking at shells through a magnifying glass in Mollusks.

But if there was one unifying thing about their exhibit, though, it was this: in every gallery, around every corner, my niece would say, “I want to touch!”

If you haven’t been to the natural history museum I work at, I will be quite honest with you: there is nothing for you to touch, unless a volunteer is out on the floor with one of the discovery carts.

I felt bad. As an employee, it’s frustrating to see visitors’ expectations dashed as they quickly realize that there are limited opportunities to actively learn and engage within our museum. I also felt bad because I had to watch my sister deal with my niece and her building energy level; at one point she even had to take my niece into a corner to remind her that they weren’t outside, and that the museum wasn’t a place for running and yelling. I asked my sister a few days later what her thoughts on the visit were, and she said that she wished there had been “interactive areas for younger kids, and more touchable things.” The comment she made that stood out to me (especially considering the quote you’ll see in two paragraphs), was that “going somewhere to be lectured at isn’t fun”, and “who wants to go to a glass museum where you can’t touch anything? What kid wants to do that?”

Their visit, combined with a National Science Foundation article I read yesterday on active learning in undergraduate STEM classes, inspired me to do some more research and write this blog post. Now, I’m not an educator by any stretch of the imagination, but as someone who grew up visiting places like the Museum of Science, the Boston Children’s Museum, and the Acton Discovery Museums, I can say that hands-on science learning is important to developing young minds and allowing them to discover how to interact with the natural world around them. Kids need a place to engage with science in an environment that isn’t dictated by grades and tests; that they aren’t going to do something wrong and get disciplined by a teacher. Because science is just crazy awesome, and who wants to get yelled at for thinking differently about dissecting a sheep’s eye in a way different from what the instructions tell you to do? (I may be speaking from personal experience…)

My main argument/proposal is that kids (and adults!) learn more and take away more from science museum experiences when they can actively participate in what they are learning, instead of being lectured to by a label on a wall or a video screen. Scott Freeman, a University of Washington biology lecturer (who authored the study the NSF article is about), said it better than I could: “We’ve got to stop killing performance and interest in science by lecturing and instead help [students] think like scientists” (“Press Release”). Replace “students” with “visitors”, and this is the essence of what I feel needs to change at my natural history museum. We spend much of our time in the galleries essentially lecturing our visitors – the text might not even be that long, but the vocabulary isn’t necessarily accessible. Instead of explaining everything, there are ways to allow visitors to experience the facts and information we want them to walk away with. “Want to know the difference between igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks? Here, touch them! See how they feel and look! Get up close and really look at them!” would be an example of something we could do.

A great example of a static exhibit becoming more accessible (because that’s really the heart of the matter here isn’t it?) is the New England Habitats exhibit at the Museum of Science. This old-school diorama exhibit has been revamped with sensory stations. Visitors can now listen to the sounds of Vermont’s Green Mountains, smell the scents of Crane’s Beach, and feel the difference between the pelt of a moose and a beaver. All of these additions only enhance the visitor experience. Do they require more care as they take a literal beating every day from thousands of visitors touching them? Absolutely. But the visitor takes something away from the experience, especially if the family engaging with the diorama has never been to the Green Mountains. Maybe the experience they had in that exhibit will encourage them to go, and have a full-on meaning making experience. Sure, there are exhibit labels at each diorama, but now that there are participatory objects for the visitors to engage with, the labels aren’t lecturing, they are adding to the experience.

In constructing this post, I did some digging on the internet for other museums and institutions that are proponents of active play and engagement for kids. Through the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) I found an article by Judy Diamond from the mid-90s (a little old, but the argument is still relevant) that looked at the intersection of playing and learning in exhibits, and how this kind of engagement can create significance for visitors (young and old). She did a study in 1987 with the Explainers at the Exploratorium, and discovered this: “When a child invents a new way of using an exhibit, at least two important things occur. One, the child constructs personal meaning from an exhibit, and two, the child acquires the ability to approach a task by inventing an original solution” (Diamond). Isn’t one of the goals of museums to facilitate meaning-making? If personal meaning for a child involves playing and touching exhibit objects, then should we, as museum professionals, push for greater access in this area?

I also looked at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, PA. First of all, now I desperately want to go, and I don’t even have kids. But more to the point, the entire museum is dedicated to the idea of “purposeful play”, where every exhibit is constructed to allow children to learn at their own pace through “the power of play”. What I noticed when browsing their exhibits page was that each exhibit space offers kids an opportunity to explore an aspect of adult life: engineering (“City Capers”), physical science (“Flight Fantasy”), handy life skills like repairing your car (“Roadside Attractions”), natural sciences (“River Adventures”), and history (“Centennial Exploration”). In these spaces you can pretend to be a doctor, a jungle explorer, a pilot, a mechanic…the list goes on. This kind of play allows kids to be exposed to a variety of subjects that might pique their interest, starting a chain reaction that can snare their fascination in history or natural sciences early. (Coming from my own experience, my early exposure to history museums set me on a path of passionate appreciation of history, so much so that I graduated with a BA in it).

I started working in my natural history museum when I was 22. Before then, I had limited exposure to science during my college career, and I only realized how much I actually enjoyed physical and natural sciences when I took a physical geology class my senior year. It’s been 3 years since I started working at this museum, and I am now fascinated by everything we have in it. I think natural history is an amazing subject that desperately needs a renaissance, not only because it’s incredibly interesting but because it will help so many people understand why fisheries collapse and pollinators die off (in other words, it helps make the natural world make sense). However, I’m an adult, and I have the power to look up information as soon as I need to know it, and I can absorb most of the exhibit labels with minimal difficulties. A child my niece’s age (and basically any kid younger than a 9th grader, I think) cannot possibly be expected to learn much of anything from the wall labels, even with their parents with them. A child needs physical tools to facilitate learning: “Young children learn best through their senses and physical interactions with the world around them” (“Value of Play”). In my mind, this could be as simple as what was done at the Museum of Science: create synthetic pelts for kids to touch. Put out antlers and horns and bones. Have more child-friendly interactive spaces. Have a solid schedule for gallery guides to be out with carts to help kids.

I could honestly go on and on about this subject, even though I’m not an educator in the slightest. My goal with this post was to vocalize my concerns and seek advice for how to make suggestions to those who have the power to make changes. Every weekend I see hundreds of families at my museum, and I want to know how they think we could serve them better.

Maybe the best way to create change is to start by asking them.


“Press Release: Enough with the lecturing.” National Science Foundation: News. NSF, 12 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2014. <;.

Diamond, Judy. “Playing and Learning.” ASTC – Resource Center – Education – Learning: Theory and Practice – Playing and Learning. Association of Science and Technology Centers, n.d. Web. 26 May 2014.

“Value of Play.” Please Touch Museum. Please Touch Museum, n.d. Web. 26 May 2014.

Touch and Learning In Science Museums

Physeter macrocephalus (sperm whale)

Physeter macrocephalus (sperm whale)

We’re starting off Cetacean Saturday with my all-time favorite: the sperm whale. I became fascinated by these creatures when I read “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” by Nathaniel Philbrick, which details the destruction of a whale ship from Nantucket by an enraged sperm whale (later inspiring Herman Melville’s infamous Moby Dick).

Sperm whales are astounding creatures of the sea. Their skull makes up 1/3 of their entire body, with much of their brain case filled with spermacetti, an oily fluid once mistaken by whalers for sperm (hence the name); scientists today are still unsure of this fluid’s purpose. These whales can dive to extreme depths (1000 meters) and can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes (say whaaaat?). They’re also bigger than the average school bus.

Sperm whales are listed as “vunerable” on the IUCN’s Red List, due to overhunting. However, their conservation is better than most other cetacean species, as hunting of these animals has completely stopped and they are a protected species around the globe. The biggest threat to these creatures is being caught in fishing nets, and colliding with ships (on top of humanity’s ever-increasing disturbance of the oceans via noise pollution, oil spills, and trash).

I think one of my favorite pop culture references to the sperm whale comes from John Hodgman’s Netflix special RAGNAROK. He starts discussing the sperm whale, and describes it as the only whale that actually LOOKS like a whale. It’s so true! Any kid can draw a sperm whale. You see a sperm whale outline on a plate or a piece of scrimshaw and immediately say, “oh, that’s a whale.” I can’t do his description justice, so I would recommend you go check it out.

This specimen in the photo is hanging at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. While I will go in today to find the specimen number, it should be known that there are 16 sperm whale specimens (not counting the dwarf and pygmy sperm whales) that can be found in the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s database. But hopefully I can find the record for this beauty today or tomorrow!

Sperm Whales – National Geographic.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 2014. Web. 14 May 2014.


The California Academy of Sciences

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I got to visit the great state of California for Christmas this year, and was fortunate enough to be staying in the South Bay Area, so on Dec. 26th myself, my boyfriend, his best friend, and his fiancée all made the trip up to the city to go to San Francisco’s great California Academy of Sciences. I was last here in 2012, around 4pm, and only had enough time to check out the Rainforests of the World biodome and catch a show at the Morrison Planetarium. Oh, and go up on the Living Roof. All of which were really cool. but when we were rushing around, the Earthquake! exhibit was still being put together, and I didn’t have enough time to check anything else out.

This time was different.

Being the active Twitter fiend that I am, I announced to the Cal Academy and the world that I would be coming up the day after Christmas with some friends. When I arrived, I got a tweet from the Academy, telling me to look behind an info desk for a little prize. What should have been there was a Claude pencil (Claude is their albino alligator), but some happy child already snagged it. It was still really cool to interact with whoever was in the PR/Social Media office at the Academy, though! So thanks for that!

This is Claude.

Out of everything that we saw at the Academy, hands down my favorite exhibitions was Earthquake: Life on a Dynamic Planet. It was so incredibly cool, and it combined the real-life experiences of most Californians with the science behind earthquakes and plate tectonics. Within the exhibition “space” (it’s located in the open atrium) are several exhibits, including a walk-through Earth structure, San Francisco Shakes (the Shake House that allows visitors to experience the 1906 and the 1989 earthquakes, an updated version of the Cal Academy’s past exhibits), and a game called Connect the Continents. After visitors exit the Shake House, they can explore the emergency preparedness exhibit, which details how you can be better prepared for an earthquake in the future.

Get Prepared!

For someone who lives in Massachusetts, this exhibit was incredibly interesting and taught me a lot. We don’t have earthquake preparedness classes in primary and secondary school in MA, and I would have no idea what to do in the event of an earthquake (that’s not entirely true: I know not to go outside). The Shake House was a great simulation; due to safety, the hydraulics only shake the house back and forth, there is no up and down movement. But it was still pretty intense! The 1989 quake only lasted for 15 seconds, so we first experienced the full length of that quake; the 1906 quake lasted a terrifying 90 seconds, but the Shake House simulation only lasted for 30 – it was still an intense example of just how scary experiencing an earthquake of that magnitude must be. When you exit the Shake House, you walk out into the ‘Get Prepared!’ section, which has examples of foods to keep stocked in an emergency box, a first aid kit, and a crank radio that plays the emergency broadcast signal at an alarmingly high volume. What I thought was cool was the “Quake Talk” wall panel, where visitors could leave notes about their experiences with earthquakes around the world. I love that the exhibit combines both the history of San Francisco with the geologic and tectonic forces that create earthquakes, and brings you into the larger science of plate tectonics and the geologic history of our planet. It’s an all-encompassing exhibition that goes above and beyond expectations. It’s also incredibly relevant to the everyday culture of the San Francisco Bay Area and California, and yet is universally understandable in the greater context of how our planet works. The Academy included some excellent examples of evolutionary diversity due to the movement of plates; while you stand in line for the Shake House you walk around a display of an ostrich, and emu, a kiwi, and a few other flightless bird species that all evolved and diversified on different continents after the plates began to shift.

The Academy also had a temporary exhibit called ‘Tis the Season for Science’, which runs until January 5th. Much of the focus was on reindeer during the winter; stations included antler growth, reindeer fur, the science behind how reindeer run, and what it’s like to see as a reindeer. There was also a snowman theatre, which we didn’t go in, but inside was a video on reindeer and was geared towards kids. There were also some presentations throughout the day while we were there, but we were too engrossed with all of the exhibits to sit and watch. The best part of this temporary exhibit, though, was the LIVE REINDEER! The Academy has two, Willow (female) and Yukon (male) in a paddock outside the museum (no, not on the living roof). There was only one docent available at the paddock to talk to visitors, but there were also several panels dispelling well-known myths about reindeer and answering some fundamental questions. My favorite was the panel explaining that caribou and reindeer are the same!

Reindeer and caribou are the same species, Rangifer tarandus.

It was cool seeing both a male and female reindeer, too. Willow, the female, was much smaller in size, was a darker brown, and her antlers were smaller. Yukon was much bigger, and the typical light brown/white/grey that we’re used to seeing on reindeer. His antlers were shedding in preparation for them to fall off entirely – because male reindeer don’t have antlers in the winter (Santa’s reindeer are therefore all girls)! Having the outdoor paddock was also a great reason to step outside the museum building for a few minutes and catch some air. There were tons of kids outside, running around and checking out the reindeer, and I’m sure their parents were relieved at having somewhere for them to just be kids.

Of course, we saw the Rainforests biodome and the Steinhart Aquarium, which were both just as cool as they were the last time I saw them. But I really have to hand it to the Cal Academy, the Earthquake exhibition is the greatest science exhibit I have seen in a while. It’s seamless combination of geology, tectonic activity, history, and evolutionary biology worked so incredibly well, and this exhibit should be a model to all other science and natural history museums that are trying to think of new and different ways to connect their exhibits together. It’s a museum that I strongly recommend everyone check out!

Cal Academy on the Web:
Instagram: calacademy
Twitter: @calacademy
Facebook: California Academy of Sciences
Also on: Flickr, YouTube (includes 3 live streams from the Steinhart Aquarium!)
Check out the Cal Academy’s Online Community page for blog content and links!

The California Academy of Sciences

The Story Collider @ The Middle East Downstairs

I had an amazing experience last night. I decided to go to The Story Collider, an event at the Middle East Downstairs whose goal is to tell true, inspiring stories about science and how scientists of today became who they are. I went because Emily Graslie, host of the Brain Scoop on YouTube, was going to be there, and I wanted an opportunity to meet her – or at least hear her talk in person.

But boy did I get more than what I thought I would.

When I showed up at the event, I made a few chums waiting in line. We talked about the Brain Scoop, why we were at the show, our jobs, school, what we liked about science…pretty much everything you would expect a bunch of twenty-somethings to talk about while waiting in line for a science event. Upon entering the downstairs, we immediately saw Emily, pacing around, nervous to talk to a room full of people about how she had gotten to where she is now (for those of you not in the know, it’s the Field Museum in Chicago). We immediately went over to talk to her, and I was both surprised and delighted to find out that Emily is actually a human being (shock!) who still doesn’t get why people like her. Talking to her was great, but soon other fans started to circle around, and we had to give them time with her too, so we moved on.

The event was fantastic. Listening not only to Emily, but Kishore Hari, Deborah Blum, and Alan Lightman all share their experiences with their entry into the field of science communication was hilarious and amazing. And then we got to hang out with them after! It was so cool. Intel sponsored the event, so there was free food (from the Middle East, so it was DELISH), and both bars were open. Apparently there was a two-day conference at MIT yesterday (Monday) and today (Tuesday), which prompted this Story Collider event, so many of the science folks from the conference were there too, and they all wanted to talk. TO US. About how we engage with science, how science can be more audience friendly, how to make science more accessible to the masses instead of the few that understand what gets published in science journals. It was incredible. I got to high-five Kishore Hari! It was great!

But if I’m being honest, the best part of my evening came at the very end. Emily was walking back from (I assume) the green room, and I decided to get her by myself for a moment to talk. She’s incredibly down to earth and so excited about what she does, and the possibility that someone else could be excited too makes her even more enthusiastic. And what did I say? Well, the details escape me, because I was still in a sort of shock that I was actually talking to her, but basically, I thanked her. From the bottom of my heart, I thanked her for being who she was, and for being the one lucky person in a million who got the dream job of going from volunteer to full-time employee. I told her that she was an inspiration to me, not only because she’s a female and she’s my age, but because I know how hard it is to volunteer in a museum that you love and watch as people ignore it. I know what it feels like to put so much time and effort into something you care so much about, only to see less and less funding come in every year. It’s really painful. So again, I thanked her. And she thanked me, for coming to the event, for talking to her, for doing what I do, and for extending her an open invitation to visit my other museum (HMNH, where I work) whenever she had time. She even gave me a hug (what!), and told me to keep in touch, which I plan on doing, because hey, what the heck. And she gave me the best piece of advice: keep doing what I’m doing.

Anyway. This entire experience has changed me quite a bit. Today I went to the Waterworks Museum and told my interim executive director that I wanted to do MORE than I was already doing, and now I’m going to the marketing meeting on Thursday night. My goal at that meeting is to convince the folks there that we need a better social media presence, and that I will do anything it takes to get our name out there and get more visitors in the door. I love this museum and I think it takes more than having free admission to get people to visit, and that’s what I’m going to tell everyone at that meeting on Thursday.

I’ve got my eyes on the prize, and I’m gonna fight like hell until I get it.

The Story Collider @ The Middle East Downstairs