Rediscovering the Thrill of Hands-on Experimenting

Learning seemed more like playtime during our visit to the Montshire Museum of Science

By Tanya Stewart

My daughter, Morgan, used to never come home with a clean outfit. Ripped shirtsleeves, grass-stained knees, dirty elbows—all signs of her love of exploring and learning about all things science, especially the outdoors. But, as Morgan progressed from elementary to middle school, she spent more and more time learning from a computer and TV shows, and less time with a magnifying glass to her eye, figuring it out for herself. When I asked her how she wanted to spend her first weekend of summer vacation, she replied, “I don’t know—probably watch TV.”

She was in the living room watching a science show, no surprise. I know a lot of moms would be pleased with a child who loved the Discovery Channel, but staying inside all summer simply would not do. “The sun is shining, birds are chirping, bugs are crawling,” I said. “This calls for a field trip.”

Morgan needed to get back to experiencing the outdoors she loved for herself. “The Montshire Museum of Science has a leafcutter ant exhibit that is pretty cool,” I said. “I think you’ll like it.”

This had been my favorite exhibit as a kid, and I had a feeling that getting out of the house would be just the thing she needed.

Mini metropolis

“The ants,” I said excitedly as I pointed in the direction of the exhibit, “are on the second floor.” I led Morgan past throngs of children and lively, hands-on exhibits.

The leafcutter ants live in a series of clear chambers and tunnels, making it easy to see how they work and interact with each other. Morgan walked around the exhibit slowly, taking it all in. “There must be thousands of ants in here. Maybe even millions!” she said with surprise. Then, one of the museum explainers asked if she wanted to help give the ants some leaves.

As Morgan dropped the leaves into the feeding chamber, we watched as the ants cut the leaves.

“They’re bringing the leaves to the fungus garden,” Morgan observed as we watched a marching line of ants head to the bottom of a tunnel toward the nest, each carrying a bright green piece of a leaf. The fungus garden, or nest, has intricate tunnels and holes. Every square inch was covered with ants, and it looked as if it were pulsating.

“When I was your age, I thought they ate the leaves, but then I learned what they’re really doing,” I replied.

Morgan went over to read a nearby sign for herself. “It says the leaves are used to grow fungus,” she stated. Then she looked closely at the mini metropolis again and reasoned, “They’re like farmers.” I remembered thinking that exact same thing while standing there 25 years ago.

“It’s really cool that they work together to grow their own food,” I remarked as I joined Morgan’s concentrated observation.

“I wish everyone at school could see this,” Morgan said with a smile. It was great to explore and learn together, no help from a deep-voiced narrator or a remote control necessary.

After the ant farm, we continued exploring the museum’s other exhibits, which cover topics such as weather, geography, light and astronomy. Morgan created her own vortex in a tank and it sparked new conversations as we watched the sand slowly settle out of the tornado-like motion.

Next, we went to The Tinkering Loft, Montshire’s marquee exhibition this summer that combines four different tinkering areas. People were teaming up to tinker with circuits, motors, and explore balance and structural design. Morgan and I decided to try making our own Scribble Bot. After about 30 minutes of teamwork, speaking with other tinkerers, experimenting and testing our design, we made an awesome Scribble Bot that created a pattern of colors. I wished they had this when I was a kid.

Then, Morgan asked, “Can we go outside?”

I was delighted to hear her ask me that, and we quickly stepped out the door for a space walk through a scale model of our solar system, adding three mile’s worth of steps to my fitness tracker, before heading for the water.

A splash of accidental learning

The huge David Goudy Science Park is an outdoor laboratory teeming with children of all ages splashing around in the fountains and waterfalls, and testing their theories at various other hands-on exhibits.

I saw the old spark Morgan used to have in her eyes when she played outside all the time come back as she headed straight for the Cascade, a hillside display of tumbling waterfalls running over boulders and concrete steps where kids can experiment with the movement of water. In some places the water ran swiftly toward the bottom of the hill, and in other places, it flowed gently around massive rocks and the bare feet of laughing children. Morgan quickly kicked off her sandals and began rolling up her pants.

“Come on, Mom,” Morgan said. “Let’s build our own fountain!”

She ran toward the fountains at the bottom of the hill and began gathering plastic tubes that were lying nearby and fitting them together. The fountains looked like drinking fountains, with water bubbling out of the top of each one. Several older kids were fitting pipes over the top of them, making water spray in all directions. Morgan placed her hand on top of one to stop the flow.

“Mom, check this out. If you stop up one fountain, it increases the pressure and the other fountains spray harder.”

Suddenly, a spray of water soaked me. “Good thing you left your phone in the car,” Morgan exclaimed, squealing with laughter.

“Two can play at that game,” I challenged, as I secured a maze of connected pipes over another fountain and directed the spray toward her.

We spent a couple more hours exploring the science park, only concentrating on laughing and playing, learning from the exhibits almost by accident. We came mainly for Morgan to get out of the house and away from the screen, but we both ended up learning new things without even trying.

Planning the next trip

On the way home, Morgan asked me if we could come back with her friends. I whole-heartedly said yes. Then, I was truly surprised by her scheme to convince her science teacher to take the whole class to see the “giant ant brain” when school was back in session.

Hearing Morgan talk about all the fun she had interacting with the different exhibits on the car ride home reminded me of my own favorite exhibits from my childhood—the Montshire Museum turned 40 this year—and I was glad I could share this experience with her. Also, the excitement I saw on her face and heard in her voice were proof enough for me that this was something she would remember long after the day ended and the ending credits ran.

Explore the Montshire Museum’s exciting world of science, engineering, technology and crawly things, and be surprised by new conversations and the joy of discovery.