PBS vs. NASA: Thoughts on popular science education at a local museum

I love living in Portland, Oregon. Great nature parks. Great libraries. Great museums.

One such museum is the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), and they always have something interesting going on. Back in April, I was able to take my son to see the Kratt Brothers. They were discussing their new children’s program on PBS Kids, Wild Kratts. Many of my readers might know them from their earlier programs, Kratt’s Creatures and Zoboomafoo. I loved these shows when I was young, and my son now enjoys watching clips and episodes of Wild Kratts on the PBS website (we do not own a television). Each episode starts out with Chris and Martin Kratt discussing a specific animal, sometimes on location. Then they morph into their animated forms and fun and adventure ensues as we learn about adaptations while the Kratts foil the plans of various villains who want to exploit the animals. Oh, and they don creature power suits.

For an event that required parents to sign up for free, but limited, tickets through the OMSI website, I expected that we would get to meet the Kratt Brothers. Their presentation for a room full of kids was about thirty minutes, and they had a question and answer session as well.

Kratt Brothers at OMSI

Kratt Brothers at OMSI

Patrick seemingly entranced by TV characters talking about animals:

Kratt Brothers at OMSI

But did we get to meet them, take our kid’s picture with them? Nope. After the presentation, they darted out the side door of the auditorium so fast that my son was unable to give them a small piece of octopus art he had made for them. And tears gushed. (I passed off the art to an OMSI employee I knew and asked her to make sure they get it). It was a fun event, and I support PBS and most of their children’s programming (Wild Kratts and Dinosaur Train can’t be beat for educational shows). The event, however, felt very controlled, and it lacked a sense of personal connection.

The auditorium was full for the Kratt Brothers, children’s television celebrities. Some parents were even complaining on the museum’s Facebook page that they were unable to get tickets, or heard about it too late.

In July, Patrick and I went to OMSI for two more events. Earlier in the month, we headed over to the planetarium early on a Saturday morning to witness the the very last launch of the Space Shuttle: Atlantis (STS-135). The planetarium usually shows the launches of the shuttles, but this was the LAST! We had to go. We sat in the planetarium, groggy but excited, watching NASA television for an hour-and-a-half until the countdown.

Last Space Shuttle launch at OMSI

It was a great moment for me, because the three-decade history of the Space Shuttle program matches my three decades of life; and great for Patrick because he loves all things science and it’s something I wouldn’t want my son to miss.

Last Space Shuttle launch at OMSI

We applauded during that final liftoff, while some of the other folks in the crowd teared up. How many people were there in the planetarium? I’d say about 40 (mostly adults), and that includes news teams who were there to film it (you can see Patrick and I for a brief moment here). That number does not begin to fill up the planetarium.

Two weeks later, we were fortunate enough to go to OMSI again to see a presentation by “OMSI Kid” and NASA astronaut Michael Barratt (he is from Camas, Washington – just over the Columbia River from Portland – and his mother volunteered for OMSI). Barratt flew on the third to last shuttle mission, aboard Discovery (STS-133) as mission specialist.

Barratt spoke of that last Discovery mission, the future of NASA’s space exploration, and the history of the name Discovery¬†for ships of exploration (sea-going and space). He included a question and answer session, and gifted to OMSI an “I am OMSI” shirt he wore while on the International Space Station in 2009.

Before the presentation as people were entering the auditorium, Barratt posed for pictures and gave his signature. After the presentation, he did a formal photo op and signed NASA photographs.

Astronomy Day at OMSI: Astronaut Michael Barratt

Two things struck me about the Space Shuttle and astronaut events. Neither had filled up the planetarium. More people had come out to Barratt’s presentation than the final launch of Atlantis, but still tickets did not run out like they did for the Kratt Brothers. And while Patrick could not keep his eyes off of the Kratt Brothers, he was difficult to keep his attention in Barratt’s presentation. That is not to say he wasn’t excited to meet an astronaut! But there’s an obvious difference between them. Barratt is not a television celebrity, and children haven’t viewed him at a particular time every morning. I am not trying to diminish the Kratt Brothers here; I’d rather my son watch their show and talk about them then what shows on any other channel. I just think Barratt should have more exposure, and it would have been great to see his event overflowing. While I’m sure there’s more to the turn outs and dymanics of each event, the greatest factor is that one is television-based and the other is not.

Astronomy Day at OMSI: Astronaut Michael Barratt

What did Patrick have to show off seeing the Kratt Brothers? A sticker. Barratt? A signed photograph and a picture with him. Which do you think will have a more lasting impression on a curious young mind?

4 thoughts on “PBS vs. NASA: Thoughts on popular science education at a local museum

  1. There’s something almost magical about being in the same room with a person or object that has been in space, isn’t there? I was a space fan as a little girl but that cooled when I became enamored of biology… until Mike Barratt got in touch about collaborating with the Beagle Project. What is true for children can be true for adults.

  2. The collaboration seems to be an awesome mix of biology and space science/astronomy.

    And yes, I did feel something, too. “Dude, that man has been in space!”

  3. Pingback: Meeting an astronaut at OMSI (in July) | Exploring Portland's Natural Areas

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