Visit a Bug Biologist’s Lab on January 17th!

Join science educator Laura Poppick on a family field trip to a biology lab at the University of Southern Maine in Portland! USM biologist Dave Champlin will lead us through a series of interactive science experiments exploring the incredible lives of caterpillars and moths. We’ll hold and handle caterpillars at different life stages, learn how to use basic scientific tools, and create an observational art project. We’ll also have time to explore dozens of other preserved natural specimens in the lab, and take a tour of the science building!

$2 per person. Recommended for ages 5+.

Sign up online here!

Note: This event does not take place at Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. Personal transportation required. Program participants will meet at 70 Falmouth Street, Portland, Maine. Participants will receive a confirmation letter upon registering with information about parking at the USM Portland campus.

Penguins in Portland: Making a Splash!

Last April, I received a large manila envelope from Skillin Elementary School. Inside I found a stack of handwritten letters from every student in Diana Violette’s second grade classroom asking me to build a live penguin exhibit here at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. Each letter offered a persuasive argument for the exhibit, and several suggested specific species and even offered tips for overcoming potential challenges. All were accompanied by colorful illustrations and diagrams.

The letters were written as part of an assignment given to the class by Amber Lane, a student teacher from University of New England. They were so convincing that I was compelled to respond to them publicly. While we weren’t to build a penguin habitat, we have opened Penguins in Portland, an exhibition of the students’ letters and illustrations alongside penguin photographs by Brian Sullivan. The exhibit will be on display in our front stairwell gallery through November 12.

On Monday, the students who sent the letters (now third graders) came to see their work on display at the Children’s Museum. While the letters were submitted by just one classroom, the entire third grade came to see the exhibit. It was thrilling to see the kids respond to their work, and to see how happy all the students were for their classmates. It was also exciting to see how much they had learned – and still remembered – from the project. As they ran up and down the stairs searching for their work, they also made very astute observations about the penguin photos!

Reporters from The Current and The Forecaster were there to document the students’ visit and take photos – click through to read their stories:

The Forecaster: South Portland students ask for penguins, get Portland art exhibit by David Harry

The Current: South Portland students inspire museum project by Duke Harrington

Meet Sandy, Our Town’s Child Inventor

coming soonA new exhibit is opening in Our Town this spring, but plans have been underway for more than a year. Get the inside scoop on how an idea becomes an exhibit from Chris Sullivan, our Director of Exhibits and Operations.

Fairchild Semiconductor dedicates its philanthropic efforts to early childhood science education for many reasons, one of them very practical: they need engineers! They are eager to hire Maine engineers, which means they need Maine kids to get excited about math and science early so they’ll pursue higher education and careers in the field of engineering. They have supported the Museum & Theatre’s science programming for years. In November 2010, we began discussions with their philanthropy committee regarding a new exhibit: a hands-on engineering exhibit that would reach children outside of the classroom, placing engineering in the context of imaginative play.

fairchildarticlequote-jimPhase One: Engineering Crash Course

Before we could find a way to introduce engineering concepts to children, we had to understand them ourselves. When our work began, we had no idea what semiconductors are, how integrated circuits work or why there are eight bits in a byte. A committee of Fairchild staff members – volunteers from departments across the company – was assembled to help us. With their guidance, we toured of Fairchild’s testing, development and fabrication facilities, engaged in hands-on experimentation, saw how silicone is grown, and learned about the chemical and physical processes that transform it into a chip. We learned that even one task requires the work of many different types of engineers. For example, if Fairchild is creating a chip that allows high definition movies to play from a cell phone without increasing the phone’s size, someone will need to design a new chemical process to create the smaller chip, and someone else will coordinate where the new machines will be placed for smooth production. Then, even after the chip is made, other engineers will continue to test and experiment with it to see what other uses it might have. Soon we had a new appreciation for the cutting edge work these individuals are doing and how many different types of thinkers are required to do it effectively: electrical engineers, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, machine operators and technicians.

Our own understanding of engineering grew quickly, but our ultimate goal still seemed daunting: how could we make this comprehensible and interesting for children? The answer came from the engineers themselves. When asked what had interested them as children, they had all loved solving problems. Whether they were solving equations or dismantling the family television set, they’d been curious about how things worked. Now, as engineers (whether they use a computer or a wrench), they apply that natural curiosity and creativity, along with math and science skills, to discover and define how things work.

Our staff attended a demonstration by the South Portland Robotics Team and left amazed and inspired. The final exhibit will have a robotics component.
Our staff attended a demonstration by the South Portland Robotics Team and left amazed and inspired. The final exhibit will have a robotics component.

We had found our starting point, the essence of engineering itself: problem-solving. When presented as an opportunity to experiment, rather than a science test, engineering naturally appeals to children’s creativity.

Phase Two: Causing Problems

Sparking children’s curiosity is a natural fit for our work, so we were excited to get started. The challenge: today’s technology is so pervasive and integral to daily life that children may be less likely to question or investigate it than they were in decades past. More sophisticated technology also presents fewer opportunities for experimentation. (How would you go about taking apart an iPod, or a DVD player mounted in the back of a car seat?)

We were determined to create opportunities for experimentation – to give children problems to solve. To make these problems inviting and integrate them into Our Town (itself a well-used, curiosity-inspiring area), we created Sandy Fairchild, Child Inventer. Her laboratory, which will be installed in the former vet clinic space, will feature several hands-on experiments designed to assist Sandy’s Our Town neighbors with practical problems. Children will apply science, math, spatial reasoning and technology skills to devise creative, open-ended solutions. Our collaboration with Fairchild gives us a team of engineers who are ready to help us implement the technological aspects of the exhibit.

Before going forward with fabrication plans for a circuit board (top), we try out a low-tech prototype (bottom).
Before going forward with fabrication plans for a circuit board (top), we try out a low-tech prototype (bottom).

We’re now in the midst of designing interactive components to fill the space. We start with intensive prototyping work. These prototypes are low-tech and designed to gauge children’s response to the component’s concept. Have you ever been to Museum and seen a staff member inside a cardboard box, acting like a computer? Were there others nearby, jotting down notes? You helped us develop an exhibit! Observing your child at play helps us determine our next steps. Prototyping involves a lot of research, brainstorming, false starts, critical dialogue and plenty of trial and error. These prototypes are rough, but they help us anticipate and resolve some technical kinks and discover the concepts and challenges that keep young visitors engaged.

Phase Three: Nuts & Bolts & Beyond

As our prototyping phase draws to a close, we enter the fabrication stage when we create and install the pieces that will become Sandy’s laboratory. Informed by our prototype observations, we’ll finalize our design plans, keeping in mind factors like visual appeal, safety and durability. We determine which pieces can be fabricated by our own staff and work with external designers and fabricators for some of our more complex components. For Sandy’s experiments, we’ll be working closely with engineers at Fairchild to ensure that the technology we use is safe and will stand up to heavy use from visitors of all ages. We also spend this time researching and writing text for the exhibit signs that will enhance the visitor experience. Soon, Sandy’s lab will be open for hands-on exploration of robotics, communications technology, circuitry and more.

fairchildarticlequote-jennThe exhibit is expected to open in late spring of 2012, nearly 18 months after our process began. (Stay subscribed to our email list for the opening announcement.) Sandy is an active inventor, so we’ll continue to work with Fairchild to develop and introduce new experiments periodically. We’re excited to offer our visitors a new way to play and explore, and we’re even more excited to think about the bigger implications of Sandy’s arrival. How many bright engineering minds will this exhibit inspire? What technologies will they invent? How will those inventions change the world? How big an impact can one small exhibit have? We can’t wait to find out!

Questions? Feedback? Contact Chris Sullivan at

Noah on Skates (not the kind you think!)

Noah's hard at work this summer!
Noah hard at work in his lab.

Every weekend during the school year, and most days in the summer, we are joined by high school students who want to teach science. Known as “Youth Rangers,” these high school students are a variety of ages and backgrounds, but all have a common interest: teaching science to children. One of our Youth Rangers loves teaching about dinosaurs, while another likes to focus on marine mammals. They all lead Star Shows and Tide Pool Touch Tanks, and they do a great job! 

If you’re familiar with these science-teaching youth, you might have noticed the absence of Youth Ranger Noah during your summer visits. Where is Noah? Noah has been away for a fellowship at the Mount Desert Island Biological Lab, doing molecular biology experiments and gene expression identification. He is working with the little skate “Leucoraja erinacea.”

But it’s not just scientific inquiry that has kept Noah busy – he’s also been continuing to teach by leading family science nights about the reproduction of skates inside Mermaid’s Purses. We look forward to his return at the end of August and to hearing about the findings from his fellowship work!

Introducing…Where Science Meets Art

Body maps

The interaction between art and science is a multifarious one, and seemingly most fluid in the minds of youth. The idea of visualizing imagined worlds is often the first step in an artistic or scientific process. The labors of both fields rely heavily on interpretation of the natural world; observation, interpretation and rendering nature.

Perfect Perspective Drawings

In recognition and celebration of this, the Museum & Theatre is excited to introduce a series of programs titled “Where Science Meets Art.” These Saturday activities will explore the symbiotic relationship of these fields.

Paint Lab

The program is not so much about using art as an illustrative tool for scientific concepts, but more so the exploration of method, materials and themes.

There appears to be a point when society, or age, or maybe just language begins to separate the innate connections and similarities of the artistic and scientific themes. Here at the Museum we would like to celebrate these universal parallels.

Shadow Fun!

Join us Saturdays at 12:30pm for programs such as Body Maps, What’s in a Fingerprint? Paint Lab, Gravity Painting, Perfect Perspective Drawing, Art Forms In Nature and Chromatography.

Nature Journals record the signs of Spring

One thing I love about the Museum is there are plenty of little treasures to discover, like the catfish hiding in dark spaces in the turtle tank, or the mailboxes and wooden post cards tucked in corners throughout Our Town.  Of course, there are hidden surprises at home, too, and I think the best way to find one is to go outdoors and take a couple minutes to explore.

March is a wonderful time to begin making records of the outdoor adventures you and your child go on together by starting a nature journal.  Even in one minute outdoors, you can uncover hidden treasures: clues that spring is on its way.  The clue could be an early tulip or a squishy mud puddle, or a certain smell in the air, or it might be a surprise! Invite your child to draw what you found together, and then tell you his or her observations to record.  Paste all these pictures and notes into a blank book to keep a record of spring’s arrival.

Below are some notes from my neighborhood:

Fairchild Semiconductor and our Youth Rangers make science fun!

Winter marks a busy season for science programming at Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. Our Youth Ranger program, generously funded by Fairchild Semiconductor, is an innovative leadership training program for students in grades 8-11 interested in environmental education. It involves recruiting, training and employing teenagers as environmental science educators who work under the guidance of staff mentors.  Rangers deliver programs and serve as nature experts on the Explore Floor (that’s our second floor). The program is powerful because it supports our long term goal of promoting responsible stewardship of Maine’s environment.

Youth Ranger Fiona talks to a young visitor about the turtles in the Ranger Station.

Youth Rangers run programs each weekend and throughout school vacation weeks at the Tidepool Touch Tank and inside the Ranger Station. They facilitate visitor interaction with activity kits covering environmental themes such as animal behavior, forest and water resources, patterns in nature, food webs, and Leave No Trace principles.  Please stop by the Ranger Station and ask a Youth Ranger a science question. If they don’t have the answer, they’ll inquire and get right back in touch!

Little Youth Rangers in training and their parents can visit this website for some fun science activities to do at home!

For a full list of our 2008-2009 educational programming corporate and foundation funders, click here.