Scientists and Artists having fun together at Pier Wisconsin

scientist blowing bubbles
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
This scientist blowing bubbles pretty much summed up my very good feelings about the new Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin, which we checked out last Saturday on Opening Day. It's intelligent, its artistic, and its not forgetting how to have fun. Here's some things I really like about it:

  • Like a standard science museum, there's a whole bunch of little exhibit workstations where you can push a button, and in real cause-and-effect fun, see something happen or kick off some process. Here, they take it a step further, and the thing you're doing isn't just kicking off a mechanized process, you're actually participating and doing something specific (unless the button you're pressing is of course, the CNC machine, which exists simply to kick off a pre-programmed process). The point being, it's not just "Press the button the begin the pre-recorded tape." Their goals for interactive learning are being reached.

  • There's been a very specific attempt not only to make the exhibit workstations interactive, but to whet one's appetite to do more, and it was very visible to us that pretty much everything you could do passively you could sign up for a class to really dive in and do actively. Did you think it was cool to make a quick tape of yourself? Sign up for some class (and there were clearly well-stocked classrooms) to learn how to really make a high-quality recording, using high-end equipment managed by people who know what they're doing. This was the opposite of the thing I always hated about field trips to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. You'd be shotgunned through, press some buttons, and never really get the point of any of it because it was so big, so huge, you just ran from exhibit to exhibit, pulled in all directions by chaperones, and not even read the detail. Discovery World isn't free from this either. In one section, there's the exhibit where basically they're demo-ing the six (were there six?) basic types of machines -- the level, the wedge, the pulley, the wheel and axle, the inclined plane, . But how many of the kids were really getting the point that the placement of the fulcrum on a level determines the amount of work vs. power? Not nearly as many that just got off on the idea riding a teeter-totter in a museum! My own kid spend a good deal of time lifting herself on a pulley (and her little brother), and I took a few minutes to point out that "Can you imagine how hard it would be if that were just a rope slung over the top there?" to which I got the answer "Not a clue. Hey, can we go look at the fish?"
    That's not to say Saturday was a good day to really learn anything. Because it was grand opening, you didn't want to stay at, say, the part of the aquarium where you could operate a remote deep sea diving camera until you got the hang of it because there was a long line of kids behind you and you didn't want to hog it up. But it did make me want to make a mental note of it to come back on a weekday, and really absorb it all. And in general, I think we need to prepare for thse types of things. Its one thing to try to apply learning to fun instantly, such as the teeter-totter as demo of a lever. I think next time, we need to decide what we're going to concentrate on, do some advance work: "Hey, did you know that pretty much every machine in the world is some version of these basic six machines? And do you know, technically, what a machine is? Hey, now that we've covered this (let's face it, boring classroom theory) let's go see it in action!" Then it becomes fun. Then you're going in with a background of why something works. Then science becomes cool, its fun, its neat-o.

  • There's also a major effort to make this a uniquely Milwaukee, Wisconsin science museum, beyond "Here's some famous scientists who once visited Milwaukee" or "Here's the Small Internal Combustion Engine Display Sponsored By Briggs And Stratton, Makers of Fine Small Internal Combustion Engines." Half the place is devoted to aquatic things: fish, boats and boatmaking, sailing skills. Well, Milwaukee is on a lake and that lake is a major reason this town is as big and as important as it is. So, maybe, kids and grownups, we need to really understand this lake of ours, and the impact we have on it and vice versa. We need to understand the tools we have at our disposal (boats, for one thing!). I thought it was particularly neat at the sailor's knots table, to realize that these knots were made up some 500 years ago, and nobody's really come up with a better technology today to do what they do. Fundamental principles don't change, do they? We "toured" (like it takes a long time) the Denis Sullivan, and realized it wasn't just some grand experiment to see if they could build an old-fashioned boat. A boat is a tool, for transportation and research, and you could learn everything from how it was built to how to run it to how to use it to gather data for research. This isn't something you'd find in a museum in Cheyenne, WY, nor should you.

  • I also like that both exhibits and classroom offerings are directed, by design, at a wide variety of age groups. I was just as fascinated as both my 8-year old and toddler (albeit for reasons) at the things we saw, wanting, as I said earlier, to try more. Let's face it: Betty Brinn is a kid's museum, and the MAM/Calatrava is a grownup's museum. Discovery World is clearly trying to pull us all in, as some of the classes seem to beckon out to adults "Hey, its never too late to learn!" and to children "Want to try this out and see if its you're thing?" I want to come back on a day when I don't have a 3-year old to chase around, and I want to bring him on a day I can totally devote to him and his curiosity. (He'd stay by the fish and that remote camera thingy all day). Stella, she's 8. I can just cut her loose.

  • Maybe its because its right next to the Calatrava, but there's clearly been an effort to not only make this place architectually interesting, but there's wonderful artwork in and around the building.Those wind sculptures outside are my favorite outdoor art in Milwaukee right now . You have to see them in person -- you miss the coolness of them in a still photo and its lost in video. Inside, the stairs up to the second level are shaped like a double helix, and they surround a moving sculpture titled "genome scuplture" with a light show that changes their color as it expands and contracts. Science meeting art, this needs to happen more often.

OK, things they need to work on:

  • So, we're going up the stairs on the aquaria side of the building and Brian points out: "Hey who poured the cement on these stairs here?" That's right, its already cracking. Hairline cracks, to be sure, but still. Sloppy. Get on it.

  • I know that they still have stuff to put together, but they also had to get the place opened, up and running. But there were still a bunch of exhibits that were still under construction and the project manager in me could help but snicker: "Within Scope, At Budget and On Time. Well, two out of three ain't bad." Hey, it’s a lot better than the Calatrava, which was Way Out Of Scope, Ridiculously Over Budget, and at least two years Late. But still. Kind of lagging here. Get on it.

  • Parking. There's a handful of spots right in front of the museum, but that's about it. And they couldn't seem to get it together with paid parking, and nobody was out directing people away from the Pieces Of Eight parking, so you had to turn in, realize there was nowhere else to go, and then sheepishly driver around and out Pieces of Eight before saying "Whatever, I'll park in the First Wisconsin whoops Firstar I mean US Bank Building." Either get some parking, or get some signage, or advise visitors where to park. Its not like it's right next to a bus stop, and during the summer festival season it's going to be downright hellacious. Get on it.

But overall, I agree with the local scuttlebutt. Pier Wisconsin did it right. Its science, and its fun, and its Wisconsin, through and through. I agree its helping to make the lakefront a destination for not just Wisconsinites. And Discovery World's management were confident enough in themselves to have a whole table focusing on nearby attractions, timeline for opening, and its place in them. They have a very clear vision and plan for their mission and I'm happy to see this kind of process working. This is forward, scientific thinking, and if it gets our kids (and adults) to even look at things this way, it’s a good thing. I'm looking forward to flashing my membership card next Thrusday morning, when they'll have a 5:30 am Tai Chi class to celebrate the Autumn Equinox.


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