Smithsonian debuts teen learning center

Teen members of the Q?crew help answer questions at the Q?rius exhibit.

Bethany Brookshire/SSP

The Smithsonian Institution knows that the best way to spark curiosity in science is through experience. You have to get your hands dirty, try different things and explore nature. In December, its National Museum of Natural History unveiled a new science space for teens. It’s called Q?rius (pronounced curious). If the spelling doesn’t pique your curiosity, the exhibit’s science will.

The National Museum of Natural History has thousands of artifacts, many being actively studied by staff scientists and outside researchers. Now students will have the chance to get their hands on some of these artifacts. They also can interact with scientists at the museum.

Kirk Johnson is the museum’s director. He says the new exhibit will offer a museum experience unlike any other.  As students move through the exhibit’s stations, he explains, they “will be able to peer deep into the research and the collections.”

The main floor of the new exhibit is filled with interactive stations where you get to explore or do science. Bethany Brookshire/SSP

Q?rius has taken over a large wing of his museum. About the size of a baseball field, this wing is chock full of stations where students can stop by and do science.  One side of a scent station invites you to sniff a range of different smells, like sweet or bitter. On the back side of the same station, you encounter a set of complex smells, such as foods or perfume. Can you recognize what you’re smelling? Can you identify component scents within each particular smell? Your descriptions may differ from what your friends report. Why? The lesson here is your sniffer may provide different feedback from the nose of the person next to you.

At another station, you can check out skulls of different human ancestors — then use what you learn to try and identify a mystery skull. State-of-the-art microscopes at yet another station allow visitors to view all sides of an object, displaying those magnified details on a computer screen. The system allows you to zoom in and out of whatever you’re scanning. I was able to see all sides of a tiny bee, all the way down to the hairs on its legs.

At the back of the Q?rius hall is a 100-seat theatre. It can project live video of scientists and research — as it is happening  — from anywhere, be it the bottom of the world  (Antarctica) or the bottom of the ocean. The theater also will host programs with scientists at the museum. Students can sit down, hear directly from scientists and then ask them questions. The topics and scientists will change over time to bring the latest science to teens. Those scheduled for January will cover topics from how meat shapes human evolution to the human genome (that DNA that makes us who we are).

Here you get to mimic the sounds of insects. Bethany Brookshire/SSP

Q?rius is also testing digital badging. These virtual badges allow students to get online credit for the science they do outside the classroom (kind of like the type we use at Student Science). A digital badge shows that you have mastered a new skill or challenging concept. You can list them on school application forms to establish your accomplishments. The digital badging at Q?rius is based on a “field notebook” that you create and use at the museum or on your home computer. Students register to set up this so-called notebook on the Q?rius site. As teens go through activities on the website or in the museum, they can log observations about what they saw and learned. Among badging activities: You can identify species on coral reefs or pinpoint different rock formations on Mars.

I visited Q?rius on its opening day and it looked to be off to a great start. Teens flooded the room, trying everything from building their own micro-creatures to logging onto exhibit-hall computers to start a field notebook. Some had even begun collecting digital badges.

The Q?rius space is big. With no walls to get in the way, students move easily from one activity to another. In an upstairs loft, students can log discoveries into their field notebooks using iPads or they can sit with friends to talk over their findings — or mistakes. And that’s because activities throughout Q?rius offer a real mental workout. I misidentified a Neandertal skull, for instance. (This science is harder than it looks!).

One station invites you to identify a mystery skull. It’s not easy! Bethany Brookshire/SSP
Each station is interactive, meaning that students get to decide what to try, making their own experiments. In one area, you can even try to solve a scientific mystery. When I arrived here, a museum staff member was leading teens through an hour long program called “Grisly Discovery.” Using bones from the museum’s collection, teens try to determine whether a skeleton recovered in West Virginia comes from a 65-year-old woman who went missing. Adult volunteers help students learn to identify a female pelvis from a male’s, to tell how old an individual had been at death and to visually identify bone diseases. These lessons help the teens solve the mystery.

My teacher at this exhibit was Nicole Webster. A Youth Volunteer Coordinator, she organizes the hordes of teen volunteers helping out at Q?rius. Webster told me that she hopes what teens experience here will inspire them and allow them to connect science to real life. “We are working with an age range where students stop being interested in science,” Webster says. “We want to keep the excitement and let them know what career options are available in science. It’s not just working in a lab. There are lots of different science careers out there.”

Adults lead some Q?rius programs. Teens lead others.  Some local high school students undertake intensive training to become a museum volunteer. They learn how explain and operate all of the exhibits and how to handle questions from visitors.

Students flooded in to the Q?rius exhibit to build their own micro-creature. Bethany Brookshire/SSP

And these youth ambassadors appear thrilled to take part.  “I think it helps to have someone closer to your age,” explains McKenna, a teen who volunteers for Q?rius as part of her home-schooled education. “It’s different if an adult comes and starts teaching about science than if one of your peers comes and talks about it.”

Other teens volunteer through another Smithsonian program known as Youth Engagement through Science! (YES!). Its members spend summers as interns at the museum. Some have gone on to help with Q?rius as well. Take Kera, a college student at Montgomery College–Takoma Park in Maryland. Working with the National Museum of Natural History helped her realize that she could use science in her career. Kera hopes to work in science communications. “It was an eye opener,” she says, to learn that science is for everybody.

Shari Rosenstein Werb is the museum’s assistant director for education and outreach. She hopes Q?rius will inspire many generations of teens. “Science is always growing and changing and asking new questions,” she says. “We wanted to create a place that modeled that experience for teens.” If Q?rius is successful, she says, teens will experience something here “that makes them excited and curious.”

The new Q?rius exhibit it is open to the public from 2 p.m. until the museum closes on weekdays and all day long on weekends. The exhibit is reserved for school groups weekday mornings. Teachers can arrange for their classes to visit through the museum’s website.

Members of the YES! Team of volunteers help out at the Q?rius exhibit. Bethany Brookshire/SSP
Power Words

anthropology  The study of humankind.

digital badge  A sign, such as an online star or other mark, that shows that you have tried and understand a difficult  idea. Digital badges are being used to give students credit for things they have accomplished outside of school or work. You can put your digital badges on school applications, for example, to show your drive and what you have already learned.

DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

forensics  The use of science and technology to investigate and solve crimes.

genome  The complete set of genes or genetic material in a cell or an organism.

interactive  An activity that you can participate in. Instead of looking at a screen and watching the scenes go by, you can make choices, try different options, and help control what happens next.

Neandertal  A species that is now extinct, but is closely related to modern humans. They may have died out around 33,000 years ago.

pelvis  The bones that make up the hips, connecting the lower spine to leg bones. There is a gap in the middle of the pelvis that is larger in females than in males and can be used to tell the sexes apart.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.