Back when the Internet was in its infancy, a prescient Exploratorium scientist made sure the museum was one of the first online. That staff member, Ron Hipschman, also managed to snag an ".edu" extension, denoting an educational institution, rather than the ".org" most other museums would make part of their online address and identity.
The choice was both descriptive and prophetic. From its inception, the Exploratorium's mission has been to create a culture of hands-on learning, not just on the museum floor but also in the world at large. Founder Frank Oppenheimer had an agenda: to create a curious, informed citizenry that would dare to ask questions. Over the years, the museum has tackled that goal from an ever-increasing variety of angles, becoming a model for innovative science centers everywhere.
The Value of Lifelong Learning
We believe deeply in lifelong learning, promoting it in both formal and informal contexts. In an era when cash-strapped states can do little to support science education for public school teachers, the Exploratorium rushes in to fill the gap. More than 500 U.S. middle and high school science teachers participate in intensive professional-development programs here each year, and we reach an additional 500 educators through workshops, conferences, and museum publications. In addition, our educational outreach programs reach more than 3,500 underserved children and families in the Bay Area community annually.
Though many of these efforts are invisible to the casual museum visitor, our programs range from professional development to summer camp to an award-winning 40,000-page website that sees more than 12 million visits a year. We sponsor lectures, films, demos, live webcasts, tinkering studios, resident artists and scientists, and a High School Explainer Program that hires and trains a diverse group of 100 or so students ages 15 to 19 each year. And all these efforts are just a sampling of how, over the years, we've extended our mission even beyond Frank Oppenheimer's original ambitions, and far beyond the museum's walls.
You might say we're bursting at the seams with educational programs, events, initiatives, and ideas. With a new campus almost three times the size of our present home, we'll have more room to do our work, increasing our capacity enormously and multiplying our impact several-fold."It's going to be a very, very exciting time," says Kurt Feichtmeir, director of the Extended Learning group. "The opportunities for doing creative and meaningful programming are just going to expand. And the venue itself, in the middle of so much activity, is going to open up the place like we've never been before. For one thing, we'll be much more accessible to students who come from the southeast quadrant of the city, as well as the Mission and Chinatown and the East Bay."
Kurt foresees expansions in afterschool and lifelong-learning programs, and he's excited about revitalizing the museum's Learning Commons, making it a resource hub for the larger educator community. That community includes educators who come for professional development through the museum's Teacher Institute and the Institute for Inquiry, as well as "people who self-identify as professional educators, whether they are formal classroom educators or informal educators in out-of-school-time programs, including museum educators and homeschooling families," says Kurt. "The idea is to mix it up." In fact, this September saw the museum's first-ever educator social event, with hundreds of attendees representing every variety of formal and informal educator. "I think we've kind of hit on something," Kurt notes.
New Facilities, New Resources, New Opportunities
Linda Shore, director of the Teacher Institute, is looking forward to the opening of the new Learning Commons, which she hopes will give educators access to resources of all kinds, from books and multimedia to telecommunications tools. She's also excited about the proposed tripling of teachers that the museum will serve, and is eagerly anticipating a doubling of classroom space and the addition of a "wet" classroom at the new campus.
"We'll have a fume hood and storage facilities for chemicals and glassware, things we've never had," says Linda. "We'll be better able to introduce teachers to more activities in chemistry and ocean-life sciences. We've lived so close to the water all this time, but to have water right under our feet is making us develop our chops in marine science and environmental stewardship."
With the upcoming move, all Exploratorium staff involved in education (which is, after all, everyone at the museum) are busily preparing for the enhanced space and stunning new location. Designers, curators, and scientists work on place-based exhibits and demos that will take full advantage of the waterfront campus. Educators brainstorm changes and additions to programs for students, teachers, and lifelong learners. It's a privileged time, an opportunity for another round of innovation, an opening up that echoes the museum's logo: a wide-open "O," portal to the world.