Inspiring curiosity: How five Chicago museums are making learning more fun

When it comes to finding ways to fuel the natural curiosity of today’s kids, Chicago is blessed.

The people behind some of the best educational museums in the country are using the latest technology, new research on how kids learn and some good old-fashioned fun to give kids every opportunity to let their minds soar.

Put a visit to these five museums on your 2015 to-do list.

Adler Planetarium

“Science is always evolving, and the Adler is able to tell a great story of human curiosity, exploration and discovery that spans many centuries,” says Michelle Larson, president and CEO of Adler Planetarium.

It’s well known that children and adults learn best by doing, and Adler prides itself on learning through open exploration and discovery.

“As we continuously push the frontier of discovery, technology is a growing part of how we do science,” Larson says.

Two programs that particularly encourage exploration and curiosity are Far Horizons and the variety of Hack Days at the museum.

Far Horizons offers camps, internships and programs where participants design, build and launch experiments flown to heights above 100,000 feet on high-altitude balloons. Students conduct hands-on scientific experiments alongside Adler’s astronomers.

The Youth Hack Days and Tech Camps provide experiences for students to use technology to solve problems and create solutions to issues they face here on Earth or that we will face as we aim to explore other worlds in our solar system.

“At the Adler we work to build the cycle of wonder, observation and discovery into our experiences,” Larson says.

The museum is designed to help kids and their parents to feel empowered to question and to discover–all while having fun, she says.

Museum of Science and Industry

MSI focuses on making learning fun by inviting every guest to be a participant in their own science learning experience.

“Everywhere you turn in the museum, you can get involved personally with science,” says Rabiah Mayas, director of Science and Integrated Strategies at MSI. “The hands-on and interactive elements allow young people to get their hands dirty and learn what science is for them.”

One such exhibit is the new permanent Numbers in Nature, which teaches about the mathematical patterns all around us. With the 1,800-square-foot mirror maze at the center of the exhibit, kids can discover that patterns are everywhere if you just know where to look.

“As society learns and grows and changes, we need to keep at pace with that,” Mayas says.

“And it’s particularly important to stay at pace with the media-savvy youth audience.”

From interactive touch screens in the Science Storms exhibit to the tablet-based Mission to Mars challenge to the Fab Lab modern workshop with 3-D printers and computer controlled laser cutters, MSI has taken into account the different ways children learn and use technology today.

“Science is dynamic and changing, with research always posing new questions and evolving. MSI is well-positioned to reflect that dynamic of science, and it give visitors reasons to keep coming back,” says Mayas.

DuPage Children’s Museum

*DuPage Children’s Museum is temporarily closed due to water damage. Please check their website often for reopening information and updates.*

Children are born curious, and the DuPage Children’s Museum factors that into every part of the museum.

“Exhibits, programs and activities are developed to inspire choice, stimulate thinking and nurture creativity,” says Alison Segebarth, interim director of marketing. “The first part of our mission statement is to provide self-initiated, open-ended experiences, and we strive to do that in every exhibit.”

Technology and how to incorporate it into the experience is ever-important at DCM. For example, the museum’s Early Learning Research in Action Council has developed a new mobile app for parents.

“The DCM app is designed to give adult visitors more information about the learning objectives of each exhibit and how to support their child’s learning at the museum, as well as how to take the learning home with them through suggestions for home activities,” Segebarth says.

The museum also offers Creativity Classes, for ages 15 months to 10 years, designed to foster children’s joyful learning about the world and themselves.

“We live our mission to foster creativity, thinking and problem-solving skills every day,” says Segebarth.

“We know that at the quick pace the world is changing and with our goal to provide the highest-quality early learning experiences for children and their families, we have to keep evolving and adapting.”

The Field Museum

Stanley Field, the nephew of Field Museum founder Marshall Field, once said, “The Field Museum will move as the world moves, forever keeping abreast of the times and the changes which they bring.”

And the museum today continues to remain true to that core principle.

“The way that people want to use a museum like ours has changed,” says Matt Matcuk, exhibition development director at Field. “More than ever before, we provide kids with an experience that puts them in control of their explorations and discoveries.”

According to Matcuk, when creating exhibitions, museum employees consider kids’ individual learning styles and the need to appeal to a broad array of learning types. They also factor in how to engage children’s senses, feelings and minds.

“We believe that museums are especially powerful learning experiences because they are self-directed,” Matcuk says. “Children can make decisions that shape the kind of experience they have, and our kind of learning at Field puts the visitor in charge.”

The Field Museum has consistently used technology to create innovative experiences that allow children to explore and discover in ways they never have before. One example is the “Sue” puzzle, where a 5-foot touch screen is mounted at kid-level to allow visitors to virtually assemble a 3-D digital model of the world’s most famous T. rex by moving its bones into place.

“Yet, one of the most important things to know about using digital technologies to help kids learn is knowing when not to use technology,” adds Matcuk. “Some of the most powerful experiences children have at our museum come from encounters with real things, such as standing beneath the skeleton of a dinosaur bigger than a school bus.”

Chicago Children’s Museum

Curiosity is king at the Chicago Children’s Museum.

“The leading child development research tells us that curiosity and opportunities to explore a variety of experiences, when nurtured in childhood, translate to easier acquisition of new skills and greater self-confidence through adolescence into adulthood,” says Twania Brewster, vice president of marketing at CCM.

“We use the basis of this research to design exhibits and experiences to excite and challenge kids in age-appropriate, play-based activities that build on their innate sense of wonder.”

The museum has quite a few exhibits that hone in on the principles of S.T.E.M. learning with questioning, problem solving, navigating physical space and the idea of cause and effect. For example, both the Skyline and Tinkering Lab exhibits provide kids the tools, materials and space to build and create anything they can imagine.

“When we are developing museum experiences that support S.T.E.M. learning, we like to try to imagine what scientists were doing as children: wondering, tinkering and exploring,” says Brewster. “We apply that to our programs, exhibits and museum experiences, rather than trying to focus on what kids should be learning about science.”

From concept to design, CCM has become adept at taking the latest in child development research and linking it to child-directed experiences that support healthy development of every childhood domain–cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional.

“Children learn through play, and that’s at the core of everything we do,” Brewster says.

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