The invention of interactive science education

Today, when almost every major city in America has a science museum with hands-on, interactive exhibits, that particular format of education seems pretty obvious. But it wasn't always.

In 1969, Frank Oppenheimer opened the Exploratorium, the first American museum to use these now-familiar educational tools. The experiment was sort of a combination of the skills Oppenheimer had learned as a high school science teacher (he spent several years teaching school after being blackballed from research science due to Red Scare paranoia) and what he saw happening in European science museums of the time.

Oppenheimer would have turned 100 years old today. Celebrate with this video, where he explains the ideas that led to the creation of the Exploratorium. It's a fascinating look at the once-revolutionary origins of a paradigm that was so successful, we now take it completely for granted.

Video Link


  1. Careful with your history. The Cranbrook Institute of Science has included interactive exhibits for generations, and they have appeared off-and-on at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry as well. The Exploratorium was the first museum to focus almost completely on this style of exhibit. The result has been a great increase in kids’ engagement with the material, but sometimes a slight dumbing down of the material in order to make it clearer to visualize and interact with.

    1. While Oppenheimer and the Exploritorium were definitely innovators, they were, as Douglas points out, hardly the first to do interactive science education. The Boston Museum of Science, which opened in 1951, had plenty of hands-0n exhibits by the time I was hanging out there as a kid in the early 60s, and had so far as I know, always had them. With their heritage from the Boston Society of Natural History dating back to the 19th century, and the addition of the Hayden Planetarium, they have always had plenty of traditional exhibits and live demonstrations (one does not generally allow hands-on access to large Van de Graaff generators by children, after all), so the Exploritorium’s sole focus on hands-on was certainly new. Still, I think the case in this article is overstated.

    2. That’s right! I came in to say I remember the Museum of Science & Industry from visits to Chicago area in the 1960s. I was so hot to go back there, I used to dream of the place. (Sadly, these dreams were lame. Thanks for nothing, subconscious.)

      1. Another MSI fan here, also with memories from the 1960s but without the dreaming.

        It’s great to know hands-on has a long history in at least several science museums.

  2. I don’t know.  There is a difference between playing with stuff and hitting a lightswitch to turn on a display, I’m not sure which side of the line modern musems are on. 

  3. Frank Oppenheimer was an awesome guy, and it’s great to hear how the concept of the Exploratorium began. Plus it’s a treat to hear it from his own voice. Thank you for that, Maggie!  And for anybody else in the Bay Area, if you haven’t visited the Exploratorium yet, do so soon before they shut down and start the long move to their new location..!

  4. Yay for Frank Oppenheimer, and Yay for the Exploratorium!  The Exploratorium was a truly formative experience during my childhood, it germinated and nurtured my curiosity about science, and technology, and the way things work.  It was also my first  exposure to art as an engaging, rather than a passive (and boring) subject.

  5. Apparently Ms. Baker has never heard about the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia–the grand-daddy of all interactive science museums, where among other things, I remember as a child–60 years ago!–walking through a human heart…it was and is a wonderland where I spent countless hours–hands on.

  6. Ok, let me place in the other side. I visit several “science museum” in America and in Europe (hands-on, Natural heritage, industrial heritage, innovation spaces, art museum, ethnological museum…), a lot of them have fantastic corners more or less big. At last I visit Exploratorium with respect and a big expectation, but… surprise It really was different, because it’s really “ugly/permanent underconstruction/changing things of place /really open spaces” like the frontier of arts and science is. It don’t show the close SCIENCE (in a funny or ingenious way) or the ART, you can feel the artistic or the scientific process “knowledge pleasure” (or panic). In several times it try to show you in the most elegant and nude way of view that this things that you learn at school, sometimes, you really not understand it. So I think Exploratorium is the first “museum of science, art and human perception”, sorry I’m so young (birth in 1972) :-). It’s really the space to promote “curiosity killed the cat” that is a power human engine to combat fear, make asks, serach for search, and construct new knowledge. Thank’s

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