Outdoor Museum

Hands-on exhibits use nature in the city to learn about the earth

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

To the average person, the Golden Gate Bridge is a spectacular overhead suspension bridge that connects San Francisco to Marin County in the California bay area. To Peter Richards, however, the bridge is a chance to teach young children about thermometers.

Peter Richards is the senior artist at The Exploratorium, a popular science museum located on the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge. He and his team developed the Outdoor Exploratorium, a series of outdoor exhibits displayed around Fort Mason.

“The idea of the Outdoor Exploratorium is to do exhibits in a natural setting, to help others look at things they don’t normally pay attention to, and reveal information about what’s going on,” Richards told Scholastic News on a tour of the museum’s new outdoor space.

Fort Mason’s shoreline environment of windy and sunny weather, marine life, plant life, and various terrains make it an ideal location for the many different types of exhibits that make up the Outdoor Exploratorium.

Exhibits include interactive displays about the wind, water, ground, temperature, sight, and sound.

For example, “Speed of Sound” demonstrates how sound travels slower than light. With a single press of a button, a light in the distance flashes. Approximately a second later, a bell rings, although both were activated at the same time.

Young explorers use cell phones to time the speed a fog horn signal from the Golden Gate Bridge takes to reach their exact spot in the city.

Other interesting exhibits include “Run Like the Wind,” which compares your running speed to the current speed of the wind.

The “Bridge Thermometer” is an experiment that shows see how the span of the Golden Gate Bridge moves up and down and acts like a thermometer according to changes in the temperature. The bridge can move up or down by as much as 16 feet!

“For several months, we took long walks around Fort Mason to observe nature and to come up with ideas for our exhibits,” Richards said. “We discussed and evaluated every idea, and built prototypes of the best ones.”

Each part of the exhibit teaches a scientific principal—or two—using nature in an urban setting. Everything from a crack in the sidewalk to rusted pipes to a pier piling is used to explore the physics of nature.

The project was funded by the National Science Foundation and has been two years in the making. Currently 16 exhibits are available both day and night. More are planned. A visit to the Outdoor Exploratorium is free and a great place to play, observe, and learn about the natural world.

To get an advance look at the exhibits, check out the museum’s Web site at www.exploratorium.edu/outdoor.

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Celebrate 40 years of Earth Day and the fight to keep our planet clean on April 22. Scholastic Kid Reporters explore ways to make every day Earth Day in the Earth Day @ 40 Special Report.

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