creating moments at chabot space and science center

Nestled in the Oakland hills, the Chabot Space and Science Center has educated the community as a non-profit institution for more than a century.  It originally opened as an observatory in 1883, moved to its current location in 1915 and was updated to a science center in 2000.

TL; DR: Skip to my top tips for visiting Chabot.

A little about science centers

Modern interactive science museums, known commonly as science centers, only gained popularity in the latter half of the 20th century.  An early example is the Deutsches Museum (1903), which inspired the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago (1933).  The Exploratorium, whose exhibits are almost all hands-on, was opened in 1969 just across the Bay from Chabot.

Including exhibits that were interactive rather than those in the look-but-don’t-touch museums of the time made science centers novel, exciting and innovative, not to mention hugely popular for educators as field trip destinations.  But looking at science centers today, you can’t help but feel that they are old and out of date.

Why do science centers feel dated?

Science centers were designed for an audience in the late 20th century, which had different desires and motivations from the audience today.  Here are three key areas that explain how the modern science center has had to adapt:

1. Technology

  • When science centers first debuted, technology was not as advanced or as accessible.  Thus, any amount of technology in science centers would have been impressive.  Additionally, in an age when information and learning was not as readily available, science centers displayed scientific facts in a more fun manner than a library.  As technology has advanced, we now have instant access to high definition video games and the answers to all our scientific questions on our phones in our pockets.  It’s a tough challenge for science centers today to provide interactivity, technology and information in a way that is not available to us otherwise.

2. Social connection

  • People today crave social connections more than ever.  While science centers have always been a place for groups to go together, it has become more important to focus on making them true social hubs.  Many science centers have common areas to hang out like a cafe and host demonstrations, shows, special guest talks, meetups and events for this purpose.  It would be great to watch science centers evolve into full entertainment destinations featuring a variety of activities that promote social interaction in addition to learning.


3. Unique experiences

  • Above all, people have always wanted unique experiences.  However, what was unique in the 1980s is not the same as what is unique today.  Because we have more access to technology and more ways of interacting with each other, science centers need to focus their efforts around ensuring their visitors have many opportunities to see or do something that they can’t easily do from their homes, a task that is getting ever more difficult.

Notice that none of these areas is “interactivity”.  I think it’s easy for designers to fall into the trap of making things interactive because hands-on exhibits have proved to be popular in the past.  But we, as an audience, have never looked specifically for interactive exhibits.

We are looking for engaging moments – of learning, excitement, or wonder.

And yes, these moments often come through interaction.  But, designers need to focus on designing for moments rather than designing for interaction.

1. Start with a moment

It is most effective to start with a moment – a way you want the audience to feel, and then design an interaction around it.  However, many exhibits in science centers simply place a layer of interaction on an exhibit hoping that a moment will spontaneously appear.  It often won’t, leading to a bland experience.

Here’s an example:

  • Below is an exhibit about operating a rover on the surface of Mars.  The person operating the rover is doing so on a computer in another room.  The problem with this is that there is no real exciting moment, and so it’s equivalent to driving around a remote control car or watching one, which can be easily done without having to come into the science center.  The exhibit would be more engaging if there were a goal to this exhibit besides simply making it interactive, such as having to communicate and navigate some complicated terrain over walkie talkies, or having to collect samples.  Designing it around a moment of teamwork or discovery would make it memorable, but without that, it falls flat.

2. Use interactivity to strengthen immersion

Additionally, interactivity should strengthen immersion, not overshadow it.  Making something a hands-on experience should support the story and purpose that the designers are trying to convey with the exhibit.

Here’s an example:

  • In the simulator below, you’re supposed to be able to pilot a craft.  However, the exhibit breaks the immersion, or the story that the designers are trying to tell the player, in a few ways.  First of all, not all the buttons in reach are useable.  In fact, the majority of them do nothing.  This takes guests out of the experience because it highlights the fact that what they are doing isn’t real.  It would be better to have all buttons do something, even if inconsequential, such as light up, change numbers on a dial, or make a sound.  Another major faux-pas is that mouse and mouse pad, which completely ruin the illusion.

Favourite moments at Chabot

Chabot has many of the hallmarks of the dated science center.  The technology in its exhibits is not up to snuff for being in Silicon Valley.  There are fonts on placards that look old-fashioned, along with tired-looking exhibits that have probably been there since the center opened nearly twenty years ago.

In spite of this, Chabot creates some exquisite moments.

1. Events

  • I visited on a Friday for a Star Wars event celebrating “May the Fourth”.  There were family-oriented activities like a costume contest and Jedi training for the kids, which were not related to science but provided social connection and a unique experience.  There were also themed talks and workshops, such as one to “make your own LED lightsaber card”.  But the main draw wasn’t the interactive exhibits; it was the atmosphere of community and fun with a dash of the Force for the Star Wars fans.  Maybe just listening to the Cantina Band in the rotunda amidst the science exhibits was enough to make the night special.

2. Telescopes

  • Far and away the stars of the show at Chabot are the three telescopes located on the observatory deck.  Rachel, Leah and Nellie were all in operation as it was a clear night, and getting to look at different stars and planets through these observatory telescopes was the highlight of my evening.  The volunteer telescope operators were helpful and informative about the telescopes and what we were observing.  For me, it was that feeling of the vastness of space and getting to do something really cool with special technology, that made that night a unique experience.

It turns out that creating moments does not require an exhibit to be “interactive”.

Making your visit to Chabot memorable

My top recommendations for anyone considering a visit to Chabot are as follows:

1. Attend an event

  • Chabot has an incredible lineup of events, from workshops and talks to overnight slumber parties and hikes through the nearby redwoods.  Some of these are for adults only, and some are geared towards kids or families.
  • Event listings can be found on the Chabot website.

2. Use the telescopes

  • A trip to Chabot is worth it just for the telescopes, especially if you haven’t seen the sky through large observatory telescopes that require you to climb a ladder.  This is a unique experience in itself.  I also recommend asking the volunteers questions, as they are very knowledgeable and friendly.
  • Free telescope viewings are on Friday and Saturday from 7:30pm – 10:30pm.

3. For kids, stop by Project Create

  • Chabot has a large space dedicated to kids being able to tinker and innovate, from creating short stop motion videos to taking apart computers to designing outfits.  It’s the science center’s best hands-on experience aimed at kids and young families, and also showcases a couple of large-scale prototypes like the whispering tube shown below.
  • Project Create has themed activities and stations during scheduled times.

While its exhibits are a little outdated, I think Chabot Space and Science Center is doing many things right.

Best of all, Chabot hosts many interesting events that explore things that we can’t see on our phones or computers, like looking at the Perseid meteor shower with experts, and hiking the redwood forest while learning about ecology.

Plus, it has the lure of its observatory telescopes, which have been at the heart of Chabot since it opened, and continue to show visitors the wonder of staring up into space.

I hope you find many engaging moments of your own there.

This picture epitomizes the idea of a great moment during the Star Wars event at Chabot. As designers, we should aim to create these kind of moments for our guests.