Exploratorium Explainers educate while the city waits for new Pier 15 location


The Exploratorium is in the middle of an epic move to its new home at Pier 15 -- its new location is set to open April 17th at 330,000 square feet, five times the size of its former digs at the Palace of Fine Arts. But while staff is busy nesting the Explainersthe museum's science-savvy youth docents, have been hard at work. The volunteers have been hosting pop-up exhibits around the city. Needing a science fix, I stopped by their event last week at the Tenderloin National Forest.

There are two kinds of Explainers: the diverse group of high school Explainers, the museum's youngest paid employees who engage visitors at exhibits, lead demonstrations, and help run various museum operations. Field trip Explainers perform the same tasks, but as experienced young educators, take more leadership roles.

Both were present on the afternoon of Jan. 31, when I enter the Tenderloin National Forest. I'm greeted to the slice of urban wilderness by the familiar Exploratorium logo printed on black flags, and by lots of friendly folks in orange vests -- the Explainers themselves, who had transformed this pocket of urban wilderness into a wonderland of interactive science exhibits. 

The first thing that catches my eye was a fruit and flower dissection demonstration, meant to teach about the various parts of a plant. Senior field trip explainer Kat Stiff asks the students, “does anyone know what a flower is made out of?” One boy in the back proudly shouts, “Cauliflower?” 

Most of the students seem more interested in the giant magnifying glasses on the table than the lesson. As I watch Stiff’s demonstration, a girl with a magnifying glass comes up to me and starts to sift through my hair with her newfound tool. I ask her if she spots anything and to which she responds, “yes. Hair.”

Across from the plant dissection workshop is the outdoor cart – which has gone with the Explainers to most of their recent events. The cart bears a poster illustrating different clouds, and a plastic soda bottle that helps you create your own cumulus formations. Before I can get started on my own personal sky, high school Explainers Zakiya Percy and Terrance Gee quiz me on my cloud knowledge.

What is a cloud made of? I should definitely know this… I know that water is involved... After I fail to pick up on their hints for the other two ingredients, they reveal that a change in pressure and the inclusion of dust particles is also necessary.

Gee does a demonstration for me. With about a half-cup of water at the bottom of the plastic liter soda bottle, he lights a match, blows it out, and places it upside-down over the opening of the bottle. He does this, he says, to add dust particles to the water. Gee caps the bottle, and I help by pumping air into it until it’s about to pop. He takes the cap off, and dollhouse-sized clouds float out. I am then quizzed again on what type of cloud we just made. The answer: fog, because of our low elevation.

As I head towards the back of the forest, Phanna Phay, a high school Explainer supervisor, is sitting down doing card tricks. Smack dab in the middle of the space is a brick oven where Explainers are helping kids heat up pizza donated by Inner Sunset favorite Arizmendi Bakery. All the way in the back, kids paint wooden veggie cut-outs, which will to be used to decorate the nearby Hotel Senator’s rooftop garden.

These pop-up Explainer exhibits have appeared at the Ferry Building and Civic Center farmer's markets, and even aboard a ferry bound for Jack London Square.

Senior field trip explainer Lia Frantti tells me about these previous events. “We were doing our fruit and flower dissection [at the farmer's market], so that people who are shopping for those fruits and vegetables can stop and think about where they are coming from and how they are growing. We were on the ferry boat talking about navigation and finding north.” 

When I ask Frantti about the benefits these pop-up exhibits have brought to the Exploratorium she explains, “it’s been really nice because people often put us in this hole of a children’s museum – which we’re not. Adults and children can definitely have an equally amazing experience at the Exploratorium. At some of the other spots we’ve been at, we have had more adults stopping by. So that has been a little bit different to have less youth and more adults spending time with us.”

Looking forward to the museum's new digs? When it re-opens, the Exploratorium will have triple the exhibition space, and double the number of classrooms. Acclaimed San Francisco chef Loretta Keller of Bon Appétit will head a sidewalk café on the west side of the pier, and there will be a waterfront café on the east side. The event in the Tenderloin was the last full scale Explainer exhibit until the Exploratorium settles into its new space. But the group will be holding outdoor events featuring the plant dissection table, mainly along the Embarcadero.