Jim Montague is the executive editor for Control. Email him at [email protected].
Knowledge, like charity, begins at home. So in between the turkey, football, shopping, parties, church services, presents and champagne, there still could be a little extra free time this holiday season.
Now I'm not saying anyone should give up a few well-deserved chances to sleep in or an essential bowl game. But there are a few times during most vacations and multi-day family gatherings when relatives and other loved ones pause, stare at each other and say, "What do you want to do now?"
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Well, I've got a suggestion. If you still have the ability and authority to pry the kids away from the Xbox, TVs and PCs, bundle them up if it's cold and head out to the local science museum.
I know what you're thinking, because I used to think the same thing. "Hey, only the biggest cities have science museums." Not true.
Personally, I grew up a subway ride away from the Brooklyn Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, and now I live about the same distance from the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. I thought I was uniquely favored. However, as I traveled around the United States in more recent years, I quickly ran into the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the Children's Museum of Houston, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh and even the small, but mighty Children's Activity Museum in Ellensburg, Wash.
Many of these museums are venerable institutions, but it seemed to me like they'd been multiplying. Consequently, I checked good old Wikipedia and amazingly found 422 total science center-type museums in the United States that are members of the American Alliance of Museums or the Association of Science-Technology Centers. (You can check the list out for museums in your area at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_science_museums_in_the_United_States.) Admittedly, many are concentrated in the big cities with the densest populations, but there are lots more in the medium-sized cities and smaller towns as well.
Of course, California has 42, New York has 38, Florida has 28 and Texas has 22. However, Arkansas and Maine each have three; Montana, Nevada, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina and South Dakota each have four; Iowa and Missouri and Vermont each have five; Utah has six; and New Mexico has eight. Pretty impressive.
Consequently, it's more than likely that there's one of these science centers relatively close to your home. So, maybe you and your family can take the kids to on a day trip or maybe an overnight, if schedules allow.
Oh, and I haven't even touched on the natural history museums, art museums, college exhibits, live theater, local plant tours and other unexplored local attractions that often can be just as fun and inspiring as the science museums, and might be even closer. For example, Bennison's Bakery in Evanston, Ill., is located about two miles from my house, and it has a specially designed window where you can watch their huge cakes being decorated. It's like having free cable TV.
I apologize for ranting a bit here, but all the dinosaurs and dioramas really lit me up as a kid, and the bite and infection were apparently permanent because I always loved taking my three daughters to our nearby museums. Heck, I enjoyed turning cranks, pushing buttons, opening doors, peering through holes, building with Legos and other fantastic playsets, and manipulating all the other interactive exhibits as much as they did. I drew the line at dress up, but I did let them smear face paints on me. No pressure, but I'm kind of hoping some grandkids show up in a few years, so we can go again.
My point is that anything that gets the kids and me up off sofa, out from in front of the screens, and running around in the world is a good thing. That's where our hunter-gatherer bodies are meant to be, and I believe our spirits as well. It's where the first sparks of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education begin to ignite. You want more engineers in your field? Well, here's the best place to get them started.
Finally, I know the holidays are busy for one and all, but winter is long, cold and/or rainy in the North America's temperate zone. As a result, even if you miss taking the tykes out during the official season, there are plenty of weekends to make it happen before spring arrives. Just don't wait too long because those little engineers grow up in a blink.