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How do you build a place of wonder?

How do you build a place of wonder?

Young man and youth explore a scence exhibit together
DeKwan Perry, Free Science Workshop educator, reviews one of his creations with a young visitor
Credit: Erik Herman
Copyright year: 2023


How do you build a place of wonder? 

Wonder. Awe. Curiosity. All three are internal states we often look to for our best selves. The self that jumps in puddles, that quiets the ego, that learns, that might care for someone else. But how are those supported or stimulated by our external environment? Museums often work to give that feeling to their visitors, creating spectacles in attempt to transform. What about those who might rarely or never walk through the doors? Or what about something that's closer to home?

We wanted to explore how someone could build a place of wonder in their home, community center, school, or anywhere else. We started by reaching out to long-term community partner, the Global Alliance of Community Science Workshops, who have been doing this deep work for decades. Starting with microscopes and electronics in the garage of the founder, community science workshops are neighborhood places where families can go to build projects from their imaginations and connect to the universe through science, art, and each other. There are workshops across California and the Northeast, as well as a global movement. You have to see photos (here!) to imagine them, and you have to walk in to one to fully get it. Coming from a scientific institution, I still can describe them as nothing short of magical. 

We wrote a project together about "Exhiblets", affordable exhibits one could make at home from available materials that explore a phenomena with joy and experimentation, often paired with deeper projects. It was funded through a matching grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services for development, distribution, and documentation of an initial set of "exhiblets". The hope is that they could be used by someone to kickstart making their own place of wonder. The intention is to share them for free with the world and invite them to collaborate in the global movement of exploratory learning. 

Our outputs for this first grant include publication of 8-10 exhiblet designs, fabrication of 40, and a mini-exhibition meant to serve as an invitation. We've begun, meeting together to build, create, design, trade materials, and explore phenomena ourselves. We've made light projections, electric guitars, bubble displays, ultrasonic levitators, homemade van de graaff generators, and have come away feeling more connected and with more questions than we started with. 

All of it after one question: 

How do we help people build places of wonder?

Diving in, our first entry comes from Erik Herman, Director of the Free Science Workshop in Ithaca, NY and IMLS Exhiblets Collaborator. He reflects on his recent trip to the Pittsburgh Community Science Workshop to build Exhiblets. I find myself touched not just by the group effort to build, but by all the little interactions that happen along the way. 


Group of university students and workshop director standing in front of a physics bus
Dr. Clare Fox welcomes university students for the exhiblets build
Credit: Erik Herman
Copyright year: 2023


From Erik Herman

November 11th, 2023: 


"As leaves turned bronze in northern Appalachia, a pack of hands-on-science fans hopped on the Physics Bus with a suitcase full of tools and a couple tubs of outdated appliances. We headed for Pittsburgh Community Science Workshop, home of Dr. Fox and her Science Party Bus. A whole exhibition of colorful exhiblets emerged over three wonderful days filled with the whirring of drills, crackling of sparks, sweeping of sine waves, and the sweet music of duct tape coming off the roll.  


University of Pittsburgh undergraduates volunteered their Saturday as part of Civic Action Week. The 2023 theme, “The Path to Joy and Liberation,” was fitting. Forgotten and discarded things were given new life. A wheelbarrow tire now shoots fog rings, a microwave tray motor now zaps your friends, an electric toothbrush charger now makes rainbow light. 


On Sunday and Monday, we turned Dr. Fox’s house into a bona-fide exhiblet factory. As new roommates to birds, lizards, spiders, and lungfish, we cut plywood in the dining room, made high voltage arcs in the kitchen, tested a vacuum cannon in the living room, and even made flames dance in the bedroom. All this was punctuated frequently by a Mynah bird–in Dr. Fox’s own voice–saying, “Hey, what are you doing?”


The wacky and eye-opening gadgets created during the trip have already been enjoyed by kids at two separate events aboard the Science Party Bus. We were also grateful to have the help, expertise, and great stories & laughs at the dinner table with Bruce Yeany of YouTube’s “Homemade Science”. Who knew you could make a (loud!) fog horn trombone with a few Pringles cans? And any roadtrip across Pennsylvania wouldn’t be complete without a stop to visit the homestead and walkalong-glider manufacturing plant of ScienceToyMaker. Thanks for the farm-to-table snacks and drinks, Slater!


We are excited to be part of the exhiblet movement. Exhiblets are a great way for communities–especially those with limited material resources–to turn junk into gold for the benefit of kids and science."





Young adult builds a science exhibit while sitting on a bus
University of Pittsburgh student builds a science exhiblet while aboard Pittsburgh's mobile workshop
Credit: Erik Herman
Copyright year: 2023
Young exhibit builders smile around a Van De Graaff generator
Exhiblet building team huddles around a newly made Van De Graff generator
Credit: Erik Herman
Copyright year: 2023
University students work on a science exhibit
Two university students collaborate on an exhiblet
Credit: Erik Herman
Copyright year: 2023


Next up, our group is coming together in Greenfield, CA to work out designs, motivations, and the next steps. The possibilities feel open, and the time never feels like enough.


Here's to wonder.



Sam Haynor


Exhibit Developer

Project Co-Director