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Written by Peggy Monahan
In college, I worked at the Museum of Science, Boston, as an Explainer and loved it. When I graduated in 1990, museum jobs were scarce, but I eventually found one at The Children's Museum, (TCM) working on a National Science Foundation-funded science curriculum project led by Bernie Zubrowski. I knew I was fortunate to find a museum job, but at the time I had no idea how lucky I was to find that job.
From the beginning, The Children's Museum was very different than the Museum of Science where my job was to explain scientific concepts to visitors. At the children's museum, Bernie didn't explain much at all, and there seemed to be more going on than just science.
When Bernie introduced an activity to a class of kids, he would show them some everyday materials, point out a couple of ways they might use them, and then oh so simply lay out the central challenge of the activity—all in about six sentences. He told them very little, but opened up everything. His economical introductions left room for the kids' own ideas. Rather than explain scientific facts, Bernie offered invitations to explore, question, wonder, and create. Often, those explorations were aesthetic as well as scientific. Bernie invited kids to look closely at the zip of a golf ball on a track, the shapes of bubbles and their interior rainbow swirls, the way water moves, and the wiggles of connected pendulums. Kids' curiosity was piqued as much by beauty as by utility.
At first a little taken aback by the emphasis on aesthetics over science, I relaxed when I realized it was a powerful way to learn. Even though kids framed their questions around what they wanted to do rather than what they wanted to discover, discover is what they did. In trying to create the perfect drinking straw house, they wrestled with structure until they stumbled on the strength of a triangle. By aiming for the most beautiful swirls of color in a tray of food-colored water, they developed ideas about how fluids move. Their works of art motivated the work of science. In their attempts to control the scientific effects on their product, they fully explored scientific content, and as a result of these personalized experiences, they usually ended up with an artifact—the artwork—to remind them later of what they had done.
Eventually, I began to see the way that art impacted my work in more ways than just aesthetic explorations. One of my roles in the curriculum project was to research and gather materials for teacher kits. I bought drinking straws to build houses, paper plates for tops and yo-yos, cardboard boxes that became cake ovens, and pipe insulation to make roller coasters. The objects took on more significance as I looked at them not for their intended use, but for what they could become. I trolled art stores, hardware stores, and restaurant supply stores for the perfect pizza pan or the ideal drop cloth. I compared subtle qualities and organized the kits based on the unexpected uses of the materials and the relationships among them. I developed a rich material literacy that enabled me to see possibilities in everything around me. As I combined an expansive material sensibility with the idea of aesthetic expression, I got a glimpse of what it must be like to be an artist. These were heady experiences worth passing on.
I stayed at The Children's Museum after Bernie's curriculum project was over and he had moved on. Eventually, I moved on, too, and have since worked at several children's and science museums, developing many exhibits and programs for visitors of all ages. Based on my experiences with Bernie and the multidisciplinary stew of TCM, I've always tried to incorporate both aesthetic explorations and expressive opportunities into exhibits and programs. I often use art as a way of helping visitors see beyond the obvious and take that first step toward creating something they want to see in the world—discovering some science as they work. I'll always be thankful for the way Bernie helped expand my definition of the work of science to make room for the deep importance of art.
Currently, as exhibit projects creative director at the New York Hall of Science, I am creating a series of spaces in which to facilitate design programs on the floor. For this project, I am deliberately conflating my scientific and artistic goals for visitors' experiences—I want them to do both.
I have always been interested in the meanings that people make for themselves, rather than what was "correct." Working with Bernie and others at TCM helped me realize that visitors' meanings are the only ones that matter. Sure, any scientific explanations we offer need to be "correct," but even if we tell people something, that doesn't mean that they grasp it. They only know what they've figured out for themselves. I absorbed this nuanced view of learning from Bernie without ever hearing the word "constructivism"—a term I never learned until years later.