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Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big proponent of science literacy and science education, with a special interest in how entertainment can be used to educate.
The most successful popular science endeavor of our times is the Discovery Channel’s long-running series Mythbusters.
Mythbusters works as entertainment because it has a wonderful cast of memorable characters (who happen to be real people), plenty of laughs, and plenty of blowing stuff up. It works as science education not because viewers learn to solve Newton’s equations but because a scientific worldview permeates the entire show. Questions are asked. Controlled experiments are planned. Hands get dirty. Experiments get done, get screwed up, get repeated. Evidence is gathered. Conclusions are drawn.
Last year the Mythbusters went on a “Behind the Myths” tour, bringing a live interactive show to audiences around the country. Now they’re offering something that will reach far more people: The Explosive Exhibition.
In October, Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition opened at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA, where it will run until January 6, 2013. From there the exhibit moves to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry opening February 2013, followed by what will no doubt be a blockbuster summer 2013 at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
I live 90 miles from San Jose and I’d never taken my kids to The Tech. The kids are huge Mythbusters fans. It was time to go.
The exhibit starts with an extensive display of actual props from the show. The kids got a picture in front of the mechanical great white from Shark Week. I was drawn to the human jet pack. The meat of the exhibit, however, is much more than gawking at TV kitsch. Visitors interact with themed experiments which are set up with the intention of teaching the scientific method. Themes range from the simple (pulling a cloth out from under a table setting) to wet (a rain tunnel to test whether you get more wet walking or running in the rain) to practical (which side does toast land on when it falls?) to adolescent (a fart collector). My favorite was a real scientific stumper that they say was one of the most controversial tests they ever did: an airplane taking off from a conveyor belt moving in the opposite direction.
Most exhibits-within-the-exhibit have a short explanatory video featuring a member of the cast.
The big finale is an actual Mythbusters-style live show. Staffers gather an audience around the stage and choose volunteers to participate. The show we saw tested whether a person is fast enough to dodge a bullet (or in this case, a paintball). They compared response time to auditory vs visual clues, and ultimately suited one guy up in protective gear and fired paintballs at him.
Summary: An extraordinary experience that reinforces scientific thinking. Loads of fun. I highly recommend you grab your favorite tween and go. A word of advice: if possible go at an off-peak time. The exhibits are best appreciated when you have time to mess around for a while. (Same is true of The Tech Museum as a whole, which perhaps I’ll review another day.)