Patt Morrison Asks

The Exploratorium's STEM seller

Experimenter-in-chief Dennis Bartels makes the case for hands-on science learning.

Dennis Bartels

Dennis Bartels is the executive director of the Exploratorium in San Francisco. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times / July 22, 2013)

Americans love the fruits of science, but the rigors it takes to grow them — that's another matter. A full-court press for more STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — students and teachers is still coming up short. Since 1969, the groundbreaking Exploratorium in San Francisco has made a highly successful case for hands-on science learning. Its new $300-million bayside quarters opened a few months ago, and its executive director (and resident STEM education expert), Dennis Bartels, is experimenter-in-chief, charged with making science teachable, visible, accessible and gee-whiz fun.

We're 50 years from the thick of the space race, when America put a premium on science education. Now we want to re-create that urgency. Why are we behind in the first place?

"No Child Left Behind" and national education reform were using sledgehammers where scalpels were probably better. They were trying to standardize everything that happens in the classroom. That took a lot of the more creative teachers out of their game. The tests weren't teaching people how to think. There are tests that show off deeper learning skills but they're $8 or $10 to administer, and the old bubble-multiple-choice tests are pennies per. This country goes for the cheap and easy, and unfortunately the cheap and easy doesn't measure critical thinking or truly analytical skills. It goes for "What's the capital of North Dakota" — stuff that will get you on "Jeopardy!" To ask teachers to teach in [deeper] ways but testing kids on what Fahrenheit is is really unfair. Teachers need tools that don't keep driving us back to the lowest common denominator.

How is the Exploratorium helping?

The exhibits at their best might be a surprise, something counterintuitive or wondrous or awe-inspiring, so the mind says, "Whoa, what's that all about?"

The best-designed ones subtly emulate the scientific process, in which you have variables you're manipulating or changing, and you begin to ask questions of the phenomena yourself and start a conversation with the exhibits.

We're the largest provider of teacher professional development in Northern California. Even high school physics teachers, who think they know all this physics, encounter something in the Exploratorium and are completely perplexed. What's happening is that you're moving from a third-person relationship to science — what other people do and what you read about — to a first-person relationship with science.

There's very little text with the exhibits.

That's a perennial debate.

We've come to rely on text and language as the main way of learning. Most of us given a choice will go to the reading, but if we take the reading away, we're making you use other ways to understand something. It's especially important when we get stuck in something to work our way through it ourselves.

Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer said no one ever flunked a museum.

We often forget that one of the things schools do is pass judgment. They give you a grade. A number of kids are smart and capable but wither away from others judging their ability. Other learning environments — not just the Exploratorium but walks in the woods with rangers, what people call informal education — are more pure learning. You're not doing it to get the grade, you're doing it for the joy of it.

What Oppenheimer exhibits remain from the old Exploratorium?

There are about two dozen, but one of the favorites is Frank's cane. He used a cane to get around with a bum leg and as a tool to point stuff out or to get angry and shake. We use it for a balance stick exhibit, like where you try to balance a bat or golf club. He would have loved it.

Is the word "museum" itself out of fashion?

That's another great debate going. "Museum" conjures images of precious objects and curiosities behind glass that you never get to touch. It's like learning how to play basketball but never getting the ball in your hands, or learning how to cook but never getting in front of a stove. You have to get in and mess about and make some mistakes. Someone asked me, "Could virtual chemistry labs replace real chemistry?" It's got to be the same difference between virtual sex and real sex: Real sex is more messy, you make mistakes and tumble around, but in the end it's a heck of a lot more fun.

The new building means more space. You have more bio science exhibits.

And even social science, which is a risk for us, but we're excited about it. There are well-established social science phenomena like the tragedy of the commons or the prisoner's dilemma that say a lot about why some of our most challenging problems are hard to solve, like overfishing or climate. Human behavior exhibits, and what that reveals about you, are very powerful. It turns out to be where we attract the most teenagers. It's a study about yourself, and who's more narcissistic than a teenager?

The Exploratorium has almost no vandalism, theft or graffiti.

People feel like it belongs to them. With something standoffish or with signs that say "Don't," "Restricted" or "Do not disturb," in an odd, perverse way that almost invites people to misbehave. But when you say there's nothing in here you can break that we can't fix, don't worry about it, people actually take better care of it.

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