Making Your Own Science Exhibits

Elementary school students create their own exhibits-just like the teachers who wrote the Snackbook

by Erainya Neirro

Erainya NeirroErainya Neirro teaches math and science in a combined fifth/sixth-grade class at the Presidio Hill school in San Francisco. Even before the Exploratorium Science Snackbook was available, Erainya sought new ways to teach science, and found a model here at the Exploratorium that she adapted for her students. Hands-on science facilities are popping up all over the country. If there's one in your area, you can do what Erainya has been doing for six years: encourage learning by building science "mini-exhibits" for the classroom. If there's no hands-on science museum nearby, or if it's not feasible for your students to visit one, the Snackbook can provide that missing link. That's what it's for.


I have always used a hands-on, do-it-yourself approach to science. Over the years, I've noticed that science becomes "real" for those students who can put something together and watch what it does. Six years ago, while looking for ways to expand my own repertoire of science activities for kids, I enrolled in a class offered by the Exploratorium Teacher Institute. The class, called "Exploring the Exploratorium," was directed by Don Rathjen and Thurston Williams, two energetic, personable high school teachers.

I had such a great time! For six weeks, twelve teachers became inquisitive, involved students. We roamed the museum and played with its more than 600 exhibits. Our goal was to choose an exhibit and build a model that would somehow demonstrate the same scientific principle that the sophisticated Exploratorium exhibit illustrated.

During the class, I built four of my own original mini-exhibits and watched my colleagues construct and improve their own. I was more excited about hands-on science than ever. But most importantly, I really enjoyed and relied on the support of the other teachers as we all struggled together to perfect exhibits that sometimes worked, and sometimes didn't. I came away with innumerable projects for my classroom, and the realization that this kind of approach didn't have to be just for the teachers. My kids could do the same thing-learning about science, working with the support of their peers, doing things on their own, and having fun, too. I wanted my students to have this experience.

Since Presidio Hill School is close to the museum, most of my students were familiar with the Exploratorium. When I suggested the idea of a future "Exploring Science" project based on my own experiences at the Exploratorium, the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic-especially from the kids.

In the summer of 1988, I wrote to my students and told them about the project. For the first semester of the school year, I said, they would go to the Exploratorium three times, and choose a new exhibit on each visit. Their goal would be to design original models of each of these three exhibits. With twenty students in my classes, I looked forward to having sixty different mini-exhibits at the end of the semester-a hands-on science museum of our own.

When school began, we talked about the project before going to the Exploratorium. I brought in the four exhibit models I had built and let my students play with them. I told them that the Exploratorium exhibit I had replicated looked very different from my model, but both my model and the museum exhibit "said" the same thing about physics. Like me, they wouldn't copy the construction of the exhibit. Each student had to find some way to build a model that would show the same scientific principle that an Exploratorium exhibit demonstrated.

Focusing sound with a carbon dioxide-filled balloon. Finally, we were ready for our first visit to the Exploratorium. Once inside the museum, the kids were given an hour to play with exhibits and pick the first one they wanted to replicate. This exploration time was essential. Kids would become captivated by an exhibit, grab a friend to try it out, and spend time talking and planning and experimenting together. Each student in the class was expected to build a different exhibit. As the students made their decisions, they came right back to me: they knew that it was first come, first served.

Over the course of their three visits to the museum, my students chose to build exhibits that demonstrated many different scientific principles, but several favorites came from sections of the Exploratorium that demonstrated perspective, vision, color, and light. Two favorites were "Bird in the Cage" and "Blue Sky."

If you look at the "Bird in the Cage" Snack (see page 27), you can see the exhibit's potential flexibility: a variety of colors and shapes can be used to demonstrate the concept of afterimages. The "Blue Sky" exhibit (see page 29) is appealing because it's easy for the kids to figure out what they will need: essentially, water and some kind of light source. Besides this relatively simple assembly, "Blue Sky" answers a question that fascinates them: "Why is the sky blue?"

Once an individual choice had been made, the student and I went to look at the exhibit and make preliminary plans. I asked them to tell me how they would design this exhibit for the classroom. It was important to assess whether their plans were feasible. Often, the student's plan was very workable; occasionally, I had to make suggestions to help simplify the process. I also had to direct one or two students to different, less complicated exhibits. (In a museum of more than 600 exhibits, this was relatively easy.)

I left the students alone with their exhibits so they could sketch preliminary designs and write notes from the information at each exhibit. I asked them to think about how other people would use their model, and to consider the science that their model would illustrate. Before we left the museum, I checked each student's design and notes at least once. Many had to return to an exhibit to clarify some point in the design or to get more scientific information. My class and I were in the Exploratorium approximately four hours during each of these three field trips.

Anti-Gravity Mirror Back at school, several class sessions were devoted to building each student's science project. We all brought in a variety of materials. Like most long-term science teachers, I have lots of stuff-often more than I can store. For this project, I found I needed large cardboard boxes, construction paper, posterboard, batteries of various voltages, copper wire of various widths, tape, glue, flashlights, markers, and scissors.

Since storage space is practically nonexistent at Presidio Hill, I asked each child to get a sturdy shopping bag with handles, so they could easily carry their "in process" exhibit from school to home and back. Of course, this presented its own problems. Some of my students ended up misplacing their half-built exhibits; some left their projects on the bus. Other projects and materials just sort of "disappeared." None of the materials were expensive or irreplaceable, but it was no fun for those unfortunate students to start over again.

In the classroom, students selected the materials they needed and helped each other with the construction of their exhibits. During this process, which took several class periods, students made comments to each other to help improve designs or make an exhibit easier to assemble or allow the exhibit to be a better demonstration of a scientific principle. I was amazed at how little they needed my help. I helped with the scientific explanations, and found information for them in the encyclopedia, but for when they were building their exhibits, they used each other as resources. These sessions were chaotic, but wonderful. We had materials all over the room and at least three conversations going at once. We might start with a question like, "What color should I make this part of my spinning disk?" and end up with a complex examination of how cones in the human eye actually work.

Not everything went perfectly, of course. It would be dishonest of me not to mention the time I found one student carving his name in his pencil instead of cutting out the cardboard squares he needed for his model. But all in all, these sessions were very productive. The kids were committed to building with care. If something didn't work the first time, they pitched in to help each other. First they had to find the problem, and then figure out a solution. A student often built his or her project two or three times before the final product was satisfactory. The finishing details were done at home.

Besides the time spent building the models, homework included a rough draft of the paper due for each exhibit. After I edited this paper and made suggestions on how to improve the scientific explanations, each student revised his or her paper and wrote a final draft.

As for the math part of the class curriculum, it taught itself. The kids were so busy calculating, counting, and measuring, they hardly even noticed how much they were learning. Though I suggested they use inches and feet when they built their projects, for instance, many discovered that it was easier to work with the metric system, and learned how to convert from one to the other. Finally, we had Evaluation Day. The students presented their projects and let their peers play with the finished exhibits. This display generated the kind of peer support I was hoping for. The majority of my kids were so invested in their work that each one came away with something they were proud of and that they thoroughly comprehended.

Their classmates were genuinely impressed. They had all seen the prototypes in their various stages, and now they got to play with a finished model that actually worked and showed them something intriguing. I didn't have to use an inadequate textbook or workbook: I had a kid-directed course that was highly productive, encouraged peer support, and built the self-esteem of every student. In one semester, my students were required to create three models based on Exploratorium exhibits, give oral presentations to demonstrate their exhibits, and write scientific and exhibit explanations. We explored many different topics, and we all learned new and exciting things. The kids worked together, solving problems on their own and making unexpected discoveries as they went along.

I encourage any teacher to give these hands-on science experiments a try. Once you have a set of these demonstrations in your classroom-whether you do it by working with a local museum, or by building the Snacks in the Snackbook-you'll have a student-built science museum of your own.

©1993,1994,1995,1996 The Exploratorium 3601 Lyon Street San Francisco, Ca 94123