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Children’s museum goal: Move beyond elementary

Wisconsin State Journal


What would inspire a pre-teen to hang out at a museum that has “children’s” as its middle name?

Maybe a “VIP room” devoted to people age 12 up? An anti-gravity room? A hands-on lab where, frankly, visitors could make a lot of stuff blow up?

Those ideas and others flowed in a brainstorm session Thursday, where 40 sixth-graders from Badger Rock Middle School met with officials from the Madison Children’s Museum to offer ideas about how a new floor at the Downtown museum could become a magnet for visitors in the upper-elementary and middle-school years.

Fundraising is expected to begin this summer to outfit the museum’s unfinished third floor with exhibits and programs with a scientific bent. While design concepts are evolving — with input from a series of listening sessions with parents, teachers, middle schoolers, scientists and others — the 8,000-square-foot space is expected to eventually house three zones: exploration (exhibits), expression (a flexible performance space) and experimentation (a lab-type space).

“We’re trying to get away from calling it ‘the science floor,’ because we have so much science going on on other floors of the museum as well, but (it’s) really a chance to provide more sophisticated opportunities for older kids,” said museum education director Kia Karlen.

The museum, which opened in greatly expanded quarters at 100 N. Hamilton St. in August 2010, offers a dedicated area for children ages 5 and under and programming and exhibits for babies through age 12. New offerings would be geared to that range as well as 13- and 14-year-olds.

At Badger Rock, museum science coordinator Rex Barber asked students to dream up an exhibit idea that “is as crazy as you want it to be.” Many involved candy, hands-on building, or science with an element of danger, like exploding volcanos.

In contrast, a frequent theme in sessions with adults has been to give students “the freedom to fail or get it wrong the first time,” Karlen said. “We’ve had a lot of scientists tell us, ‘If I set up an experiment and it succeeds the very first time, I haven’t learned nearly as much as if it fails 12 times in a row before I get it right.'”

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