How do you keep a third-grader up past her bedtime? Log on to http://www.exploratorium.com. There, she can calculate her weight on Venus and her age on Mercury and zoom in for a close-up of Mars' milk-chocolaty swirled surface. She can find out that the word "Saturday" comes from Saturn and that Neptune's winds rage at 2,000 kilometers per hour. She can build a Solar System model or simply take a look through the Exploratorium's Webcam--ducks on the pond outside or the procession of car headlights as they move through San Francisco's Marina district.
This is the trip I took with my daughter Hannah the other night, as I went online to check out what the world's museums--science, history, art and others--had to offer students and teachers on the Internet.
The results were uneven, with many museums still posting only a schedule of their physical exhibits, but it was also heartening to see how many now feature fascinating interactive tours, kid-friendly activities, Webcasts, online versions of their regular exhibits and lesson plans for teachers.
Of those I visited, the Exploratorium, with 10,000-plus pages, was a clear winner. In addition to the Astronomy section we investigated, there were numerous other areas for adults and kids of different ages. Archived live Webcasts, for instance, take visitors to CERN, the world's largest particle accelerator. There, they "meet" scientists, machine operators and control room "jockies" to learn about antimatter, the Big Bang and other big ideas on the origins of the universe. Other Webcast topics included a 1999 solar eclipse and breast cancer from a Women's Health exhibit.
The Sport Science area is another great place for parents or educators to get kids hooked. You can find out why curve balls curve and how momentum, gravity and friction govern skateboarding and learn about the science of hockey from the NHL's Sharks.
Teachers will appreciate the carefully designed lesson plans that combine hands-on activities with higher-order thinking skills and a direct tie-in to the Exploratorium's online material. In one lesson, students build a magnetometer to monitor changes in the Earth's magnetic field in their classroom. In another, they explore the nature of sunspots and the history of humankind's attempts to understand them.
The morning came early for my daughter after that night on the Exploratorium's Astronomy playground. But I've rarely seen Hannah, who tends to be casual about school, so intrigued and hungry to learn more.
It was a strong reminder of how powerful a well-crafted Web site can be.
Other worthwhile online museums include:
The Museum of Modern Art (http://www.moma.org)
Though most of the collaboration opportunities for educators are offered only through in-person classes in New York City, there are also some good online activities for adults and kids not in the area. Art Safari, for the younger crowd, asks kids to write stories about animals in paintings and sculptures and then submit them to the museum for display.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium (http://www.montereybayaquarium.com)
Here, visitors can tune in to a penguin cam to seen the aquarium's penguins go about their business or a kelp cam to see the world's first indoor living kelp forest. Also offered are online explorations of coral reefs and rocky shores and interactive games, such as Crunch, Gulp and Bite, for younger kids.
The Tech Museum of Innovation (http://www.thetech.org)
This site features regular interactive discussions, profiles and video interviews of technology pioneers such as Apple founder Steve Wozniak, Bill Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and Janese Swanson of the GirlTech Web site. Software reviews are included, and visitors can build three kinds of satellites using a satellite construction kit. There also is information about the museum's traveling Robot Zoo exhibit.
The California Museum of Photography (http://www.cmp.ucr.edu/photo/webworks.html)
The museum offers a variety of interesting online exhibits for more sophisticated students and adults. Included are new works, scanner art, a searchable database of 1,761 rare images from Ansel Adams and surveys of the works of other masters, such as Eadweard Muybridge.
Museum Stores Online (http://www.musee.com)
This site provides a searchable list of hundreds of online museum stores around the country. Stores offering everything from astronaut food to math games to stuffed animals can be searched by category--art, history, science and technology, regional, and so forth--or by product, such as books, crafts, games and children's items. This site is a good starting point for finding various types of museums that might be in your area, and it is also a handy way of purchasing some unique gifts online.
Susan McLester is editor of Technology & Learning magazine.