Thursday, November 18, 2004
A new kind of science center
I'm in sunny Orlando with my friends from Project Exploration, who had previously fed me and brought me along on dinosaur expeditions. (It's good to pick the right friends.) Why are we here, you ask? PE has already established a great track record at working with kids and getting them interested in science, but they have grand ambitions to grow far beyond their current presence. In particular, they are planning to build an exploration center that would serve as some sort of hybrid between a science museum, action park, and research facility. (Still working on what to actually call it.) Part of the philosophy is to go beyond just showing people the wonders of science, and to engage them interactively with the process by which science is actually done. They want to demystify science and help children appreciate that this is an adventure they can all be part of.
One of the first steps in the process of making this real (besides negotiating with the city of Chicago to snag a great location, which is also ongoing) is to brainstorm about what such a place might be and what it might contain. So here we are at Design Island, where we're having a Charette to develop ideas for the project. "Charette," as I have learned, is jargon for a brainstorming session. (The term evolved from 19th-century students at the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts, rushing their projects around in a cart called a charette.) We have certain parameters in terms of space, and a far-reaching agenda about what we want to do with it -- exhibits that are interactive and educational, opportunities for visitors to interact with working scientists, space for lectures and announcements of exciting results, research laboratories, an open science library, and all the usual extras. So we're bouncing around ideas about nature walks and virtual reality and animatronic dinosaurs. We want the experience to be different than you get at a typical museum -- less about the shiny and impressive final products, and more about the messy reality. In the meantime I'm having a great time experiencing a very different messy reality; in the next five years or so we'll get to see how it all turns out.