Endeavour to discover at the California Science Center

Credit: Walter Scriptunas II/Spaceflight Now

You’re in Southern California, and the family wants to do something that is fun for all and affordable. Well Disneyland is out. Why not try the California Science Center? It might not have Mickey, Goofy or roller coasters, but does Disneyland have a real Space Shuttle? Oh, and did I mention – it’s FREE!

Going on fifteen years now, the CSC is more popular than ever with the addition of Shuttle Endeavor. 600,000 children a year currently visit the facility with more than two million total visitors expected in 2013.

The CSC has something for everyone. Aquariums, games, puzzles, physical challenges, an IMAX Theater, historic artifacts of the space program, including real Apollo and Gemini Capsules, a full-scale engineering model of the massive Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, and of course, Endeavor. Oh and did I mention – it’s FREE!

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Kenneth Phillips, the Curator for the Aerospace Science Programs at the CSC. We discussed everything from the future of propulsion systems for manned Mars missions to his favorite space movie… Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Which if you ever saw the original, not the Keanu Reeves remake, then you would know why it is so funny that Dr. Phillips memorized the phrase ‘Klaatu barada nikto’ as a kid. If the aliens ever did show up, he was prepared to save the world.

That brings us to the mission of the CSC. “Aspiring to stimulate curiosity and inspire science learning in everyone by creating fun and memorable experiences, because science is an indispensable tool for understanding our world.”

That sounds great, but does it work? From seeing the hundreds of children having a great time the day I was there, I’d say – definitely. As Dr. Phillips said “What science centers are good at, the kinds of experiences we provide, if we are clever about it, are far more than just entertaining. They open doors for people. Not only in terms of stuff you will see and think about. They will open doors for them in terms of what they themselves can actually do.”

He hit on a key to the future of science education: making science accessible and cool for children. We all know that science in the American school system is hurting. A science center is not a substitute for what needs to be taught in a classroom, but it is a stimulant that can help children want to learn.

“We’ve got to reach children early. Create experiences that they find memorable and they can succeed at,” said Dr. Phillips. The key word being success. That is a theme that kept coming up in our conversation as well as around the center when I would see children trying to solve challenges or understand principles that an exhibit was demonstrating. The key is kids need to be able to succeed.

Too often we make it feel like advanced sciences are too hard, too out of reach for the everyday person, but the fact is, they aren’t. Science takes work to learn. But so does football. So does art or music.

“Everybody in society has to be on the same page. We need to assure them that they can succeed and not take excuses for not succeeding,” said Dr. Phillips. If we replaced “in society” with “on this team,” you might think it was Phil Jackson giving a locker-room speech.

So what else does the CSC have planned for the future? Currently they are focusing on building the new facility that will house Shuttle Endeavor in a vertical position. They are trying to simulate the launch platform environment. It will be an astonishing display once finished. Right now Endeavour is housed in a hanger that barely fits her massive size. The hangar feels cramped, confined, but that loss is our gain as patrons can walk under her and get closer than most ever thought they could to a real Shuttle.

But Endeavor needs to be free, and in a few years she will be. There are ways you can help. This is an expensive endeavor, forgive the pun, and they could use your help. There is the Sponsor a Shuttle Tile Program. You can have your name displayed on a shuttle tile. Or you could donate to EndeavourLA. Or do something as simple as becoming a member of the CSC. Becoming a member gets you free IMAX tickets, free parking, High-Wire bike rides, wall cliff climbs as well as much more. All things that are more fun than Disneyland, and still cheaper.

Hey kids, if you want to make your parents happy, save them some money. A trip to Disneyland for the day, for a family of four – $334 just to get into the park. And it’s an additional $152 if you want to go to California Adventure on the same day, for which no one has the stamina. Not even kids.

The California Science Center, for a family of four – $0.00. And if you want a second location, walk down the sidewalk about a hundred feet and you are at the Natural History Museum for half of what it would cost for a single ticket to get into Disneyland. What kid doesn’t like dinosaurs? No kid I want to ever meet.

So you can go to Disneyland and spend a lot more money, learn nothing, and enjoy the two hour drive home after a long day, or you can visit downtown LA, spend practically nothing, learn while having fun and possibly be inspired by the world of science. No one ever changed the world by riding through the Haunted Mansion.

Credit: Walter Scriptunas II/Spaceflight Now
This article appeared in the 2nd issue of RocketSTEM magazine.

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