Exploratorium physics teacher Don Rathjen jokes that he’s been teaching “since the crust cooled,” but really it’s only been since 1962, when he left the army for the classroom—and never looked back. Today, he’s an integral part of the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute. In fact, he’s been there from the very beginning.
Don began his teaching career in Liberia, returned to the U.S. with wife Ann, and settled in Pleasanton, California—before heading off for another teaching stint abroad, this time in Turkey. While international gigs were exciting, Don’s attention ultimately turned to a more local venue when he connected with the Exploratorium in 1984. “My interest in using simple materials to teach was evident even when our kids were young,” says Don. “They got used to finding their missing toys in Dad’s physics lab.”
Don came to the Exploratorium for the museum’s very first Physics Teachers Institute (which ultimately became the Teacher Institute, or TI). “Hands-on was definitely my style,” he says, “so it was a good fit.”
“In that first summer institute,” says Don, “I was struck by how part of our class time consisted of just going out on the [museum] floor and spending time with exhibits. In some sort of magical sense, there was freedom to pursue your own agenda, but still have it mesh with the overall group situation. There was a sense that the program was there for us, rather than us being there for the program—a spirit we try to keep alive to this day.”
Though Don felt a natural affinity for the Exploratorium from the start, he didn’t know that he was embarking on what would become a 30-year relationship. “I’d been to similar institutes,” he says. “They were good, but when they were over, they were over. At the Exploratorium, the difference was that when it was over, you were encouraged to make the museum your science home away from home.”
He did just that. The next year, Don was asked to teach a few classes at the museum, and for a while split his time between classroom teaching in Pleasanton and teacher training at the Exploratorium. In 1988, Don was named the first TI Teacher of the Year. He also worked on book projects, including the Exploratorium Science Snackbook, which shows teachers how to use simple materials to build classroom-sized versions of Exploratorium exhibits. “We thought of it as exporting the Exploratorium,” says Don.
In 1994 Don retired from the high school classroom, but stayed with the Exploratorium, and is now a core part of the TI team. Fellow teacher Modesto Tamez points out that “Don was here when it all started, when the education component here at the museum really took off. Later, he retired from a job, but he never retired from us.”
Don is gratified that his love of teaching—as well as his connection with the Exploratorium—has rubbed off on his family. His three kids (and their spouses) are all middle school teachers; grandsons Connor and Steven recently came to an Exploratorium OpenMake event to help attendees build micrometers; and this summer, Steven will be volunteering at a three-week Teacher Institute. “So he gets to hang out with Grandpa,” smiles Don—who will, of course, be there too.