Fun House – Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California – Brief Article

Mary Roach

San Jose’s hands-on Tech helps learning stick


A MUSEUM THAT BILLS ITSELF AS A SHOWCASE for technology and innovation sets a pretty high standard for itself. Everyone will expect whiz-bang state-of-the-art interactive gadgetry, and the thinking behind it had better be fresh. The Tech Museum of Innovation in downtown San Jose, California, delivers on both counts. The Tech is a place where a kid–or a fun-loving adult–can climb into a simulated NASA jet pack and make the thrusters sidle up to an errant satellite. He can design his own roller coaster and then test-ride a virtual version of it. He can try his hand at keyhole surgery, grasping an artificial artery with endoscopic tweezers while a tiny camera shows his efforts on a monitor. He can use crime lab forensics to solve a murder, create his own multimedia presentation, or try on the latest steel mesh shark-attack suit.

One might expect a museum located in Silicon Valley and blessed with $32 million in donations from local tycoons to mainly celebrate computers and the Internet. Instead this museum is a testament to human ingenuity–how people use technology to improve living on Earth.

The Tech raises complex questions and answers them with an experience. How do bio-engineers insert the genes of another species into a corn plant? Find out by handling a gene gun identical to the ones scientists use to fire microscopic bullets into plant cells. How do geologists monitor earthquakes? Jump up and down on a special platform and see seismographic renderings of resulting tremors on the wall above your head. All of the exhibits are designed in keeping with the principle that telling informs, but doing makes it stick.

The Tech excels at simplifying technologically complex things without making them simplistic. I was skeptical when Kris Covarrubias, a museum spokesperson, told me, “Here’s where you design a virtual building and test it for earthquake safety” or “These kids are transmitting a live feed of their news broadcast to that satellite dish up there.” My immediate thought was, “Right, and when I get home I’m going to rig up a fiber-optic toaster.” But when you actually step up to do these things, they’re engaging and pleasingly doable. The mentally cumbersome details have been stripped away, leaving behind the essence and, more important, the fun and power of the technology at hand.

When I performed mock laser glaucoma surgery, for example, the only thing that hung me up was the step labeled “Place a paper target into the slot.” I couldn’t find the slot. The surgery itself was a breeze–and a revelation. I discovered how and why lasers are used to treat glaucoma. Burning a tiny hole in the iris lets the jellylike fluid within the eye seep out, reducing pressure on the optic nerve. By holding a paper eyeball up to the light at the exhibit, I could even see the size of the hole: smaller than a pinprick.

A sizable corps of expert staff and volunteers is stationed throughout the museum to teach and explain and to encourage Grandma to take a turn on the jet pack or to fix the mock Mars rover after sixth graders ram it against the rocks one too many times. The day I visited, a staffer pretending to be a Peanut Butter and Jelly Robot made sandwiches for museum goers. The idea was to show why it’s necessary to be specific when giving commands to a robot. “Scoop the peanut butter out of the jar,” instructed one boy, whereupon the “robot” picked up the boy’s hand and began using it as a scoop. That’s one lesson a kid will surely remember.

For more information on the museum, surf to

COPYRIGHT 2000 Discover

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