ACTON — Jessie Carleton’s two children watched with wide eyes at the serpentine contraption looming 13 feet above them as blowing air sent colorful scarves and lightweight balls flying through its transparent tubes.
At the Discovery Museum, which just completed a renovation and expansion, the A-Mazing Airways machine offers kids the chance to explore how the science behind the exhibit works.
“I just like that they answer questions by themselves. I think science is a good way to do that,” said Carleton, who was visiting with Olive, 3, and Cy, 6.
The museum’s role is to show children that science is part of the world around them, and to encourage them to learn more about it, said Neil Gordon, the organization’s chief executive officer.
“We’re not about telling or helping kids know what to think. We’re really about having them know how to think,” said Gordon. “That’s what science is — it’s a skill to understand the world around you.”
The Discovery Museum, located at 177 Main Street (Route 27) in Acton, held a grand opening of its upgraded exhibit space March 3 after an $8.8 million fund-raising campaign to enhance its facilities.
The project created 16,000 square feet of new space, including the indoor museum and an outdoor Discovery Woods treehouse, all of which is designed to be accessible for all children from birth to age 12 and their families.
The project expanded and renovated the Science Discovery Museum building, doubling the space so that exhibits from the Children’s Discovery Museum and science museum could go under one roof. (The change also led the organization to tweak its name — it’s now known as the Discovery Museum, dropping the plural “museums.”)
The museum blew past its original $7 million fund-raising goal, with more than 200 individuals, organizations, and corporations supporting the work, Gordon said.
Last year was a time for growth for the museum: 2017 ended with more than 2,400 families joining as members, an increase of 9 percent over 2016. And even with construction, the museum hosted 187,000 visitors — its second-largest year since it opened in 1982.
By moving exhibits from the iconic — but antiquated — Victorian home used for the children’s museum to a building that is accessible to all visitors, Gordon said, the museum will be more welcoming to all.
“We believed that what the Discovery Museum offers is really good for kids and important for kids, and therefore it should be available to all kids,” said Gordon. “We want every kid to be fully curious and creative.”
Does the new museum space fulfill that goal? On a recent weekday afternoon, Carleton said it was her family’s second visit that day.
“It’s a fantastic museum, a fantastic staff,” she said. “I love how design and art are integrated into this.”
Alongside families, the museum also serves as a rich resource for teachers and other educators, said Susan Erickson, the K-5 science and social studies curriculum specialist for Weston’s public schools.
Last May, she planned a day for students at Weston’s Country Elementary School to visit the museum.
Erickson, who previously worked at the museum, said she was inspired to become a teacher by watching how its exhibits spurred children’s interest in learning science.
“When [children] are doing science, it sticks,” said Erickson. “By doing it, it makes sense.”
During a recent tour with museum staff, groups of families moved through the new exhibits. One demonstrates how water can move and be shaped. Another uses common household objects to split a beam of light into a colorful spectrum.
There’s even a workshop where children can try fashioning their own simple flying machines — and try them out with a blast from a vertical air stream machine.
Among the new exhibits is Brain Building Together, which is aimed at very young children up to age 3 to spur healthy brain development. The exhibit, like others in the museum, was built with input from experts in child development, education, and other fields.
The exhibits are also designed to lure in the attention of older students [read: parents and guardians] who can be part of the learning experience.
For Gordon, who has worked for nearly nine years as the museum’s chief executive, encouraging science education for children is a way to invest in future generations.
“Science is just a way to understand the world, and for me, the children’s museum world is a way to really nurture the most important resource we have,” Gordon said. “You think every kid is just a seed of opportunity.”
For more information about The Discovery Museum, including hours, admission, and special programs, visit www.discoveryacton.org.John Hilliard can firstname.lastname@example.org.