Part science experiment, part theater performance, part scaled-back Disney experience, Carnegie Museums’ traveling science shows give teachers and their students proof positive that science is fun.
By Niki Kapsambelis
With 300 middle-schoolers craning their necks in anticipation of what’s next, Mike Hennessy explains a “binary beat” using a small troupe of seven volunteers wielding hollow PVC tubes. “Say it with me: Zero,” Hennessy commands.
“Zero,” the children respond.
“One,” says Hennessy.
“One,” the crowd repeats.
Then Hennessy adds an audio prompt: Every time he says “zero,” the students do nothing. When he says “one,” they tap their pipes. Using this simple binary code, the children triumphantly tap out a name: Q-U-A-S-I. And on cue, a pint-sized robot by that name hums the theme to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to giggles and cheers.
The show, Rockin’ Robots: World Tour, is part of Carnegie Science Center’s Science on the Road series of educational outreach programs aimed at bringing informal science experiences into schools. Each year, the programs tour elementary and middle schools from Pennsylvania to Michigan, upstate New York, West Virginia, and Maryland. The idea, according to Hennessy, is to lay a foundation upon which children can build their interest in science—in his words, “giving them those big impressions that they’ll be able to draw on and be inspired by.”
Similarly, Carnegie Museum of Natural History pulls out all the stops—with dinosaurs, bugs, tropical rainforests, and enchanted forests among the hooks— to reach children through its in-school Science on Stage series. Last year, these lively, hands-on assemblies, which have entertained and educated school groups since 1994, logged 9,070 miles on the road, generally playing to audiences of 200 students at a time, says program specialist Michael List.
Collectively, Science on the Road and Science on Stage reach more than 250,000 children each year. By comparison, about 100,000 children tour the four Carnegie Museums annually on field trips.
As program developers, Hennessy and List not only produce shows—tweaking each based on the feedback they get from audiences—but also present them and train others. Before a show makes it to school auditoriums, gymnasiums, or classrooms, the educational staffs at the museums spend hundreds of hours writing, casting, and creating experiences that will educate students in a way that will stick in their over-saturated memory banks.
Rockin’ Robots, for example, showcases the Mars Rovers, undersea robots, Da Vinci surgical robots, and other mechanical wonders through an interactive show that could have been borrowed from Disney. With the help of Quasi, one of just three animatronic puppet hybrids of its kind in the world, Hennessy explains robotics concepts through a “world tour” that includes demonstrations, by way of video, from working scientists. Children learn how robots use sonar in the ocean, sort pharmaceuticals, and help doctors perform surgery.
Some schools book new shows year after year, all of which are tailored to the appropriate grade level and aligned with national and Pennsylvania academic standards, says Hennessy. Science Center topics range from climate change, conservation and renewable fuels, to physics and the laws of motion. He adds that Science Center and Museum of Natural History educators are teaming up to develop a new show that will take students on a journey to the center of the earth.
List points out that children can sometimes throw even the most seasoned performers for a loop, but it’s all part of the fun of a live performance.
In a recent lesson about the rainforest, List prompted students to name the stages of butterfly development. After correctly identifying the terms larvae and the lesser-known chrysalis, he asked what the process of development is called.
“Menopause!” a young boy eagerly exclaimed.
“That’s right! Metamorphosis!” List responded, without skipping a beat, while teachers stifled laughs.
“You have to move along without stopping, because you don’t want to make them feel bad,” List says. “Asking kids questions, you always get something, which is what we’re looking for! It’s part of the learning process, and the fun.”
For Science on Stage, Museum of Natural History educators typically feature a single character. Drippy’s Great Adventure focuses on the life cycle of a water droplet, changing from vapor to liquid to solid, journeying from puddle to creek to wetlands and rivers, then all the way to the ocean, before returning to the sky in a cloud. A version of Dinosaurs! tailored to middle-schoolers focuses on the adventures of a paleontologist. And BUG MANIA covers the life cycles of insects, their importance to the ecosystem, and how they help and harm humans.
For the youngest learners, Through the Woodland Looking Glass follows a young girl named Al as she gets lost in a forest filled with magical talking animals. In this entertaining and informative take-off on the classic Alice in Wonderland, kids learn about the basic needs and unique characteristics of wildlife.
Michaela Williams, a Science Center educator who recently helped stage Rockin’ Robots with Hennessy at North Strabane Intermediate School in Canonsburg, Pa., says the shows have been as much of a learning opportunity for her as they have for the students.
“If my childhood science teachers could see me now, they’d probably pass out,” laughs the onetime anthropology/archaeology major. “The kids ask great questions.”
On this particular day, fifth-grader Samantha was surprised to learn the breadth of industries that use robots.
“I thought they mostly did ocean work,” she says. “I didn’t know they put medicine away and did all those jobs. I liked how they could see without using eyes that are human.”
Just to make sure he still has the attention of Samantha’s classmates, Hennessy throws a few pyrotechnics into the robotics mix.
“Our goal is to really complement what’s in the classroom,” he notes. “Doing a theatric assembly lets you do a few things, those big chemistry reactions that a school probably can’t afford to do. It’s a good way to start a lesson, because you’re igniting curiosity about a topic.
“That’s why we’re there,” Hennessy adds. “We want to delight them and entertain them, but we also want to educate them and inspire them to learn more. The end of the show isn’t an end; we hope it’s a beginning of an interest for them.”