Field Trip Explainers

Reflections on life at Exploratorium

Tag: observations

Happy Vernal Equinox!

by Chas

March 20th, the first day of spring, and the day when the sun should rise exactly between two column of the rotunda when viewed from the center of the dome. even though clouds were forecast, Anne, Khamara, and I headed out to see what we could see. I arrived a bit before 7 am. the lights were still on, and bats were flying about.

the cloud cover continued all morning but we could see a bright spot rising between the columns.

although we didn’t get to see the sun, it was still a magical morning. there is something special about watching the world wake up in such a beautiful location.


Summer Exploration Guild

by Aiona

As Explainers we get lots and lots of opportunities to explore interesting materials in interesting ways, some of which we document and share with each other through this blog. In an effort to experiment with ways to extend these opportunities to museum educators throughout the larger Exploratorium community I’ve just launched a new project called the Summer Exploration Guild. The plan is to invite educators from various museums, including ours, to spend two weeks collectively gathering ideas for ways to explore a given topic or object. We’re currently half way through out exploration of bubbles, and I personally have been having lots of fun blowing all kinds of bubbles, including tiny bubbles, giant bubbles, cubic bubbles, and antibubbles. Come Explore the Summer Exploration Guild Blog, and if you’re an Explainer or museum educator please feel free to join in. Here’s a photo of my proudest bubble moment so far:

Last Day of Training

by lianna

Exhibit haikus

An Explainer tradition

Summing it all up

Ok, it’s not the best haiku ever, but it gets the point across, right?  We wrapped up an  amazing two weeks of training with one of my favorite activities – the exhibit haiku!  Manpreet is an all star and recorded all the brilliance we created.  We started at Colored Shadows.  Everybody wrote either an adjective, verb, or noun about this exhibit and randomly taped them up on the wall.  After a little rearranging, this is what we came up with:


surprising wall light obscured trinity

separating complex space melding fun

blocking shapes hide rainbow silhouette, move

Pretty good, huh?  After that we broke out into small groups to visit an exhibit that makes the invisible visible and be inspired by it to write a haiku or three.  I’ll write the haikus here for now and post answers in the comments in a few days. Until then, you’ll just have to see where the imagery takes you!


saga in moments

amazing dance transforms time

make it fall again



discombobulating puff

discordant anguish


gently squeaking scent

challenge to the senses, yes?




clear, pink, green, orange, purple, blue

multiply by 2


sleeping in silence

tonal friction awaken

emerging patterns


sprinkle snowy gems

crystalized meanderings

chaos dances still


the lengthening slide

illuminate wind high low

light magnified toot

How many exhibits can you fit in one four minute music video?

by lianna

In the jungle that YouTube can sometimes be, I stumbled across this video a few months ago and found it fascinating.  Since then I have returned to it several times, not because the song is anything special, but because the video itself is so fun to watch.

It’s fun to see the exhibits that are so familiar to us presented in such a different way.  And that got me thinking, exactly how many exhibits are in that video?  At first I thought that would be easy to figure out — watch and count.  But how do you decide which illusions count?  Ones that are related to exhibits?  Ones that are identical to exhibits?  What about the ones that used to be on the floor and aren’t anymore?  And how many times did the team in white bounce the ball? (just kidding…)

So I propose a challenge to all you explainers out there.  Watch it and count up how many exhibits you see.  Then we can compare answers!  I’d love to hear your perspective on it.

Aiona the Know-it-all

by Aiona

For me, explainer training was all about learning one big, surprising, challenging concept; explainers do not really explain things. Not very often at any rate.

I graduated from college several months ago with a big smile, and an inflated ego thinking “great, now I know pretty much everything there is to know, and can finally go teach some of my expertise to other people.” Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, I’m not quite that bad, but I am probably a certifiable know-it-all, and I was definitely always that obnoxious girl in class who wouldn’t put her hand down, and had to have the answer to everything. The weird thing I’m realizing is that in a lot of ways I still am that girl, and around my co-explainers it gets me irritated glares instead of ‘A+’s.

I’m also noticing that a lot of the kids who come in here really couldn’t care less about my obscure facts or complicated jargon-filled explainations, some of them just want to do their own exploration, and, of course, that’s the whole point. So I’m learning to keep my mouth shut, ask more questions, and have less answers. It’s an ongoing process but so far it’s been interesting. I think maybe our job title is a little off. When I asked the other explainers how they described their positions they threw out some much better ones, like “experience facilitator.” I also think “exploration patrol,” should be considered. We do have badges.

Make and Break Exhibits

by ryan

 We’ve debuted some cool temporary exhibits at the ExplOratorium over the past few months. The kids at our summer camp made the first exhibit which hangs from the circle of lights in the middle of the museum. For one of our activities, the campers dissected computer keyboards and made flying “cy-birds” from the plastic sheets that lie under the keys. The project allows the kids to create an piece of art that will stay on the floor for the next month or so. I think that the idea of having an exhibit like this demonstrates the spirit of the ExplOratorium as a museum without pretentions about who can make art, do science or contribute to the exhibit space.

The second temporary exhibit going on at the ExplOratorium is a totally amazing sculpture created by the visiting artist Aeneas Wilder. His piece on display at the current moment is titled Untitled No. 133 and can be found in the art space in the back corner of the museum surrounded by the mind section. One amazing thing about the exhibit is that the entire thing is constructed without any glue, nails, or material which holds the pieces together. It’s sort of like a giant Jenga game, although for some reason it probably wouldn’t stay standing if I tried to remove a plank even though I have super steady hands. So the other crazy thing about the exhibit is that the artist kicked down two previous versions of the artwork before settling on the current design. Earlier in the summer, I saw him building a twisting tower which he later knocked down with a mighty boot, creating a loud noise that apparently echoed throughout the entire museum. Watch the video on his website here if you don’t believe me! If anyone wants to check out the demise of the current installation live, I believe that the plans are to knock it down on Labor Day at 4PM.

Something about the piece reminded me of the Marble Machines that the PIE institute has been working with over the past year. Like the marble machines, Wilder’s works is made of simple materials and by nature temporary. I remember that after working on my peg board for only a few hours, I was extremely reluctant to take the pieces apart. I can only imagine what it would be like to destroy something that you spent so much time, planning, and precise placing of wooden boards. Although the spectacle of the crash might be pretty damn satisfying.

Rats on the brain

by ryan

At tapas with the explainers at Cha Cha Cha in the Mission after some good old experimental theater, Luigi and I naturally started talking about lab rats. After watching Ratatouille, it seems like a common thing to ask questions of whether rats have human qualities or whether is it disgusting to see a swarm of rodents flow across the floor of the kitchen of a fancy French restaurant.

Remy the Rat

Apparently Luigi worked at UCLA with a girl who named all the rats that they were conducting scientific experiments on. While we explainers pride ourselves on being kind to our four legged friends, we both agreed that that took it a bit too far. But, then last week I saw this article in the NY Times about the personalities of rats and how they are similar to people in a lot of ways. They’re even ticklish which might make one reconsider preconceptions about the animals although the whole study seems kinda gross and makes me wonder why someone has the urge to focus on such a topic.

Left-hand blues

by akikoakiko

So as many of you already know, I accidentally chopped my hand open while cutting some clay (beware of clay!).  As a result, I’m noticing all the things that I usually do with my left hand that I had just assumed before that I do with my right, since I’m right handed. 

Young-Jin and I once did a training on left and right handedness, but I now realize that you have to live it to REALLY know when you need that other hand.

 Things I used to do with my left hand before it got a hole

1)  Hit the spacebar.
2)  Open stuff (soymilk top, shampoo bottle, all jars and twist tops)
3)  Apply make-up and face lotion.
4)  Pick my totebag up (to swing on my right shoulder)
5) Dig into bags (my totebag, chip bags, cereal bags, bags of snacks)
6)  Button my clothes in under 20 seconds

 . . . and the list goes on.  But seriously, who knew?!

**5/29 – Ryan requested a picture.  So here it is.  Not for the squeamish, but it’s cool as far as scars go. 

Evolution: opinions, facts, and theories

by Luigi Anzivino

Explainers live a good life. Before getting to hang out with excited kids and adults and share our love for the exploration of science, we get a one-hour long training, every morning, on a variety of different topics. Occasionally, we get together and just talk about stuff, or discuss some topic of interest. Recently, our training consisted of generating questions that we wanted answered about evolution. A lot of interesting stuff originated, but this is not what this post is about.

It seems like, these days, you can’t talk about evolution without someone bringing up the “controversy”. You know what I’m talking about. Intelligent design. And, inevitably, someone mentions that “isn’t it true that evolution is just a theory”, as if this justified proposing as an alternative something “just as valid”, like intelligent design. Problem is, that statement is misleading (I’ll let you decide whether that’s intentional or not on the part of proponents of ID), and it originates from the fact that “theory” has one meaning in science, and often a different meaning in common parlance. A lot of people seem to think that a theory is just a scientist’s opinion, and if it turns out to be true, it could become a fact. The difference between an opinion, a fact, and a theory is a pet peeve of mine, and so here goes my rant.

The best definition of the difference between those three elements that I have ever heard is from Michael Fanselow, a professor at UCLA who teaches learning theory. (He’s also a shockingly smart guy. Being in graduate school is a very humbling experience in that you’re constantly confronted with people who are very much smarter than you.) So I’m going to steal appropriate it:

An opinion is just an idea, with no formal basis, not based on hard facts but just on how you feel about something. Some examples: “pancakes are yummy”; “Tom Waits rocks”; “Jar-Jar Binks sucks”; you get the gist: those are all opinions.
A fact is a single piece of information that is true. Apple falls when dropped: fact. Rock falls when dropped: fact. Book falls when dropped: fact. And so forth.
A theory is a way to organize a lot of facts and make predictions. Tidy up those words a little bit and you get: a theory is a systematic set of assumptions that makes predictions and organizes facts. A theory doesn’t necessarily have to be right or wrong; it has to be useful, because it organizes a lot of facts, and it has to be testable, i.e. its predictions must be able to be confirmed or disproved.

The theory of gravity, for example, is such because it explains lots and lots of facts. This is much simpler than having to keep stating single instances.

Therefore, a theory can (no pun intended) evolve. In fact, the theory of gravity is the perfect example of this process. Galileo first found out that all objects on Earth accelerate at the same speed when falling. Newton picked up on that and figured out that the force that was making stuff fall on Earth was the same that was keeping planets in orbit around the sun. His Law of Universal Gravitation came down to a neat little equation that predicted the orbits of all the planets. In fact, it predicted the existence of a new planet that nobody had yet seen, Neptune. Later on, Neptune was found exactly where Newton’s law had predicted it should be. You can see how that has been useful: its predictions have been confirmed, and we’ve all gained a planet.

But then, scientists found a discrepancy in Mercury’s orbit that could not be accounted for by Newton’s law. They started looking for more stuff in the solar system that could “fix it”, but couldn’t find any. Predictions were not confirmed. The theory was “wrong”. Then along came Albert Einstein with his General Relativity theory, which accounted for the Mercury discrepancy. Turns out, Einstein was right, Newton was wrong: out went Universal Gravitation, in came General Relativity. However, a theory’s value is also in its usefulness. General relativity is a bitch to compute; Newton’s theory is easy-peasy. Unless a staggering amount of precision is required, scientists still use Newtonian gravitational law to calculate the movement of planets and celestial bodies.

Evolution is a theory because it explains an astonishing number of facts and has some seriously kick-ass predictive power. (For a fascinating example of the predictive power of evolutionary theory, read about how it predicted the existence and unique social structure of the naked mole-rat!) In fact, evolution does nothing short of providing an explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. The theory of evolution is not an opinion, it is the best way science has to explain a lot of facts about life on Earth. If and when a better theory will come along, it will supplant evolution, no hard feelings.

Intelligent design, on the other hand, is not a theory. It doesn’t systematically organize facts, it doesn’t explain anything, and most importantly, it does not make testable predictions. Therefore, as far a science is concerned, it is just an opinion. Putting the two on the same plane and saying we need to “teach the controversy” is preposterous.

Light and fluffy

It would be like you trying to explain the chemical reactions between baking soda and buttermilk that make pancakes fluffy, and someone coming along refuting your explanation by saying: “but I like French toast better!”, then demanding that, in all your future lectures on the chemistry of acid/base reactions, you also mention that French toast is a perfectly valid alternative to pancakes. Most people would not see a controversy there. They would see one person trying to provide an explanation for a physical phenomenon, and the other hijacking the issue by using an unrelated emotional argument.

But this, of course, is just my opinion.

My Latest Exhibit Crush

by ryan

While I’ve had some deep relationships with exhibits like turntable, the bubble tray, and catenary arch, no exhibit on the floor has been satisfying me lately like the musical drinking fountain. It just the perfect exhibit to show to visitors (whether in orientations or one-on-one). If you don’t believe me, I have six reasons why this little number has stolen a piece of my heart.

1. Its a simple concept and every part is transparent. The ehxibit makes musical tones when the circuit is complete and electricity can flows through the whole system.

2. Its fun to make songs by keeping one hand on the copper band and quickly poking the silver surface with one finger, producing a new and suprising note everytime depending on how much current can flow through that part of your hand.

3. Electricity can flow through people. So when one person touches the silver and one touches the copper…touching each other’s hands makes the musical tones. You can make some really sweet high fives.

4. This concept works with 17 or more people all linked together creating a chain. Most of the best exhibits at the exploratorium have to be used by more than one person at once.

5. Its probably one of the only exhibits where you really can use all 5 senses (wait…can you smell water?).

6. Its hidden as a functional object. I really like how it rewards those who have their eyes and ears open and are curious about everything around them, not just the labeled exhibits.

Has anyone else had any other cool experiences with this baby? Don’t worry, I won’t be jealous.