The simplest things

It’s been great getting my ‘feet under the table’ this week at the Exploratorium, as along with all the logistical things, I’ve been able to play and explore with as many of the exhibits as my heart desires. But more on exhibits later… first things first…

The Exploratorium is one of the main attractions along the pier-front in San Francisco. It is busy with school groups, locals and tourists.

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One of the Exploratorium’s galleys, setting up for a staff party after closing time for public.

Before I talk a bit more about my new temporary and very cool workplace, let me digress and share something that is so simple, that it’s mind-blowing!

Ever asked a class to produce a booklet or leaflet about a topic etc? They always seem to go through reams of paper or are very wasteful? Well, one sheet of paper is all it takes!

For example, a neat little welcome booklet for volunteers was put together by a volunteering high-school student:

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Step 1: Fold the page into 8 segments, and discreetly number each segment from 1 to 8. On this view, the cover page (1) is top left, then you go anti-clockwise around the paper. Step 2: Cut a slit in the middle, between pages 3-4 and 7-8.
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Step 3: Fold in half, length wise (obviously with your creative touches on the outside)
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Step 4: Allow the slit in the middle to naturally fold, so all your pages end up in order
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Step 5: Geek out and enjoy your new pocket-size piece of knowledge!

There are some of you reading this probably thinking: “yeah, uh-huh Steve, that’s nothing new!” But for me it’s a resource epiphany! So while the duh! maybe justified, give me (and all those others who didn’t know this simple hack) a break… 😉

So back to the Exploratorium… Firstly, it’s worth reading their own about page first. It’s not long, they do it best and all I’ll be doing is regurgitating. If you want a little more detail, clicking on their ‘Our Story‘ bit is well worth the read too.

Even further still, if you enjoyed that and can spare the time, this award-winning documentary from the 1980’s gives a ‘behind the scene’ look at the work at the Exploratorium.

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So rather than just regurgitating (did I seriously use that word twice in one post!? oops) what the Exploratorium is all about, let’s give you my initial experiences of it so far.

One of my jobs while I’m here will be to work with the high-school explainers. These are a a group of youngsters who are keen to continue their own learning though teaching, demonstrating and guiding to the general public. They had to go through an application process and while it is paid they are still giving up their time. They are trained by the staff or experts in a field of study during an internship, and then put their skills and knowledge to practice out of in the exhibit galleries.

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Senior project specialist for the Environment Group, Kate O’Donnell (second from right), leading a training session for the high-school explorers, posing the question: “How deep is the bay by the pier?”. They find the answer using exhibits and then ponder the wider context of the question, particularly the bay’s past and future.

I love how the training sessions I’ve seen so far reflect how I wish the ‘average’ classroom would be. They were stimulating, interactive and rather Socratic at times. Where the high-school explainers would pose ideas, insights and often the direction what was being taught or discussed. The lack of hoop-jumping was both refreshing and productive.

The whole of this afternoon I shadowed one of the explainers during his afternoon rotation on the exhibit floors. He clearly was enjoying his work he and said that being an explainer for the Exploratorium had brought a love of science that wasn’t coming from the classroom. I totally get that.

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The rotation/shift schedule for the explainers helping out today.
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A pre-schooled completely engrossed during the demonstration of the dissection of a cow’s eye. The explainer’s level of knowledge was impressive but his engagement with the young girl and his enjoyment in having that engagement was delightful to see.

What I love most about this initiative is the trust and responsibility given to these youngsters by the Exploratorium. And so, members of the public themselves can see them in action and, I hope, have any reservations or stereotypes about young people just wash away. The high-school explainers very much remind me of many of the youngsters I have worked with back home, particularly those who gave up their time to help me run the Geography department, or lead a lesson, or mentor a fellow student. It gives me hope for the future. I very much am looking forward to working more with these guys.

It dawned on me this afternoon, that for all the complex exhibits and positive busi-ness about the place. Things with the explainers were just… kept simple. Put some trust in young people, give them the tools and the logistics and off they go. And damn, they’ll do a good job!

UPDATE: 23rd January. I’ve been further exploring the Exploratorium website, and wow that’s a great resource in itself! I’ll definitely be combining things from there with my experiences on-location. If you are interested in learning more about the explainers, perhaps with an eye to developing youth leadership at your establishment or organisation, then their part of the Explo’s webpage is definitely worth a look! I spent a while watching the videos… and now I’m going to hang out with them on the exhibit floor for a bit!

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