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Science of Skateboarding exhibit teaches physics through play

Five-year-old Kaoru Heitzman slides down a grassy hill as he explores the new “Notion of Motion: The power of skateboarding” exhibit at the Iowa Children’s Museum at Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville, Iowa, on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Five-year-old Kaoru Heitzman slides down a grassy hill as he explores the new “Notion of Motion: The power of skateboarding” exhibit at the Iowa Children’s Museum at Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville, Iowa, on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CORALVILLE — At the new Notion of Motion: Science of Skateboarding exhibit at the Iowa Children’s Museum at Coral Ridge Mall, kids can slide down a friction hill, send mini-skateboards and riders zooming down racetracks and design their own skate board ramps.

And during all this play, they will be learning. All the exhibit’s elements are designed to encourage interaction and experimentation and feature key physics concepts kids ages 5 to 10 should learn, said museum executive director Deb Dunkhase.

“The challenge for any informal out-of-school program is to be very purposeful, to have a learning goal, so when the kids are in school, they have all those experiences built up,” she said. “Things make more sense to a learner if they have some relevance to their own life.”

The Science of Skateboarding exhibit opened May 1, the first major redesign of the Notion of Motion room since the museum first opened in 1999. The revamp was made possible through a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant, which was split between the museum and two researchers, Ben DeVane at the University of Iowa and Kristen Missall at the University of Washington.

Missall is examining adult-child interaction in the space and is planning on-site visits to the museums to conduct her research. DeVane is studying how gaming interacts with physical exhibits; two computer touch tables in the exhibit feature an interactive game, designed specifically for the museum, that encourage kids to design their own skate park and watch animated players try their design.

Museum staff designed the exhibit using “Dimensions of Success,” a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program assessment tool developed from research conducted at Harvard University’s PEAR Institute: Partnerships in Education and Resilience. It gives exhibit designers goals to meet in areas ranging from organization of the exhibit to how well it engages children in learning STEM content.

Using the tool helped secure the grant, and museum staff will present this week at the Association of Children’s Museums national conference about how they used the tool to design the exhibit.

“We love it. It’s improved our exhibits. Each element of the exhibit utilizes the dimensions,” Dunkhase said. “We’re hoping this can be a model for other children’s museums.”

The designers also got firsthand input from the skateboarding demographic in the form of students at Cedar Rapids’ Iowa BIG School, who were on the development team.

Museum associate executive director Aimee Mussman said they chose skateboarding as the exhibit’s focus because of its universal appeal.

“Skateboarding is a low-cost investment to get into, it appeals to both genders, it’s rural, it’s urban, it’s done all over the world,” she said.

In the exhibit’s “skate shop,” children can use tools to take apart skateboard elements. Children can roll balls through a moving wire sculpture meant to demonstrate kinetic and potential energy in action. Balance boards, bracketed to wood panels, let visitors test their balance, and the kid-sized friction hill gives children a place to experience gravity in action.

“This is where we are going for the full-body experience,” Mussman said.

The skateboards were all handmade by a volunteer, and the wooden elements of the exhibit were designed and built locally. The exhibit is designed for kids ages 5 to 8 but includes elements friendly for both younger and older kids.

“We’re always striving to help the public understand how important play is to child development. We work really hard to make sure to support the kind of play that is important — open-ended, child-directed play helps kids figure out the world around them,” Dunkhase said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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