Schenectady Museum shifts to hands-on focus

The Schenectady Museum is transforming into a new facility where students investigate science and ac

The Schenectady Museum is transforming into a new facility where students investigate science and act out their own experiments, rather than staring at exhibits, museum leaders announced Monday.

The Challenger Learning Center, which has been raising money for a decade, will move into the museum on Nott Terrace Heights to offer mock space missions for children.

In addition, the museum will receive new interactive science “experiences” — not static exhibits — every year for the next five years, through a partnership with the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco. That museum sends its ExNet programs to museums around the world.

Both plans are fully funded — $1.25 million for Challenger and $850,000 for the interactive programs — and will begin within months.

In addition, RPI architecture students will study the museum and spend the fall semester designing a new entrance to the building. Currently, the museum is tucked away at the end of a side street, but a train and a sign on Nott Terrace mark the long road leading to the entrance.

The museum can do better than that, said Executive Chairman Neil Golub.

“The entrance really ought to be on Nott Terrace,” he said.

That is the only item that isn’t going to happen immediately, he added.

The changes will transform the museum — it will even change its name and mission.

Space exploration

For more on the Challenger Learning Center, click HERE.

“It was time for the museum to change its course and become a science center, not a museum,” Golub said.

In October, the first Exploratorium interactive science programs will be installed. In February, students in grades 5 through 8 will step into the space simulators for the first time to blast off to a comet’s tail, where they will conduct experiments.

The work will correspond with the state science curriculum for each grade. But most elementary schools don’t have science labs, so the experience might be the first time the student does hands-on science work.

“It’s just a great, cool way of doing it,” said Challenger Learning Center board President Dr. Heidi DeBlock. “Because they’re doing it. It’s taking the knowledge and truly making it happen.”

Problem solving

Students will also practice their problem-solving skills when pre-programmed crises occur.

They might see their equipment begin to malfunction and discover that the humidity in their space capsule is too high, or that a computer error must be corrected.

While all the problems can be resolved, it’s possible to fail.

The students fill out job applications for the various jobs and spend half the mission as an astronaut and half in mission control. They also study their target — a comet, the moon or Mars — for at least two weeks before heading to the museum. After the trip, they will write lab reports and press debriefings.

BOCES Superintendent Charles Dedrick said the program is exactly what students need.

“So often in schools we concentrate and seem to talk a lot about testing,” he said. “So often we forget to talk about what makes for successful completion of state tests and that’s hands-on work.”

He added that the mock space missions are like Disney World.

“We’re talking about something my children have stood in line for an hour to experience for five minutes,” he said.

ExNet Director Sam Dean, whose museum programs will come to Schenectady each year, hopes children will be just as eager to test out science ideas sent from the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

The Exploratorium’s mission is to let visitors “get your hands dirty and explore your own questions.”

In a “Making is Knowing” program, students sewed circuits onto clothing to make functional items. One student sewed buttons that allowed her to turn on a blinking light on her back, which she used while bicycling, Dean said.

The Schenectady Museum will bring out items from its archives to display near the programs, including various lenses for a program on sight. Dean has already visited the archives to see what could be done with those sorts of displays. The Exploratorium might take a page out of Schenectady’s book and add similar displays, he said.

“We’re just as excited to learn from you as you are to learn from us,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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