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.
On Saturday, I spoke at an Earth Day Tweetup at the Science Museum of Minnesota. As part of the event, the museum took tweeters on a behind-the-scenes tour, including the exhibit workshop. (The Science Museum of Minnesota is one of the few science museums in the United States that designs and builds all its own exhibits from scratch.) Also on the tour: Science House, a nifty resource center for Minnesota teachers. That's where this photo comes from.
Science House is a separate, detached building, set in the Museum's "backyard", that's open to teachers during after-school hours and during the Summer. It's home to a vast array of science paraphernalia. Besides this collection of skulls and plastic biology models, there's also racks of microscopes and chemistry glassware, a bookshelf full of solar system models, a regiment of Van de Graaf generators, and a full human skeleton dangling from a hook in the ceiling. There's also dozens and dozens of intriguing red plastic tubs lined up on shelves. The tubs are full of equipment, tools, and books that aren't available in every school. Teachers can check out any of these things from the museum, like you'd check out a book from a library.
The Smithsonian, the world's largest museum, is planning on producing 3D scans of its collection and making them freely available to the public to print out at home on their 3D printers (or incorporate into their virtual worlds). CNet's Daniel Terdiman has the story:
Update: Sarah Taylor Sulick from the Smithsonian sez, "Unfortunately we have no plans to make 3D scans of our collection freely available for the public to print. The CNET story is a bit misleading on that point. Our 3-D team mentioned that we COULD go there theoretically, but as of right now it is not part of our plan.
The reality is also that we have 137M objects in our collection and only 2 people working on this project. So we are no where near being able to scan everything and essentially never will be."
Now, with that high-end scanner, as well as less expensive tools that include normal digital cameras and freely available cloud-based digitization software, Metallo and his fellow 3D digitization coordinator Vince Rossi are slowly setting out to begin building a new Smithsonian digital archive. They hope this initiative will eventually lead to scores of 3D printed exhibits, as well as countless 3D models that could theoretically be used in the museums, in schools, or just about anywhere people have an interest in the Smithsonian's vast physical holdings...
Metallo and Rossi's goal is clear: they want to build a large collection of 3D scanned objects and archaeological sites that can support the entire Smithsonian complex. They've got technology on their side--with minimally invasive laser scanners they can capture the geometry of just about any object or site with accuracy down to the micron level.
But their resources are few, and the two told CNET that they have to be smart about the projects they choose to digitize. They have to know that their work is going to tell a story in a new way or give researchers new tools in order to justify spending the time it takes to do the work.
In 1950, as part of promoting a new exhibit on space exploration, the Hayden Planetarium in New York City put out the word that it was accepting applications from would-be space tourists. Over the next few years, hundreds of letters poured in. This is one of them, written by a man who would like to get to Mars early in order to corner the hot dog market there.
You can view several other letters at the American Museum of Natural History's website. They're equally delightful and packed with awesome Happy Mutant goodness—from a man who helpfully offered the planetarium his own, home-brew rocket schematics; to a man with the nickname "Stardust" who told the planetarium they could cancel his reservation if he was able to hitch a ride on a flying saucer sooner; to Barbara, a 16-year-old who informed the Planetarium that she "won't be content" until she was on a rocket headed to far-off space. Beautiful!