Five-year-old Benjamin Lichtenfeld of Lewisburg slapped the big red button to begin the game. With some help from his father, Marc, he read through the directions and learned that the Lewisburg Children's Museum needed his help to launch a satellite into space. He turned a knob to adjust the launch angle of his rocket and, with another smack of the big red button, blasted off.
"It's in space," he cried, as he watched his spacecraft break free of the launch pad and race through the sky toward its goal, the International Space Station. "Congratulations," the screen read a few moments later. Benjamin had won.
For Benjamin, figuring out how to play the game was simple — "I just saw it and knew how it worked," he said — but making it so was hardly child's play. Throughout a yearlong design process, a team of Bucknell University computer science & engineering students — Michael Hammer '17, Kenny Rader '17 and Keyi Zhang '17 — poured all their effort into the unique challenge of designing a hands-on educational exhibit for children.
"We really tried to make our design for the console as intuitive as possible for the kids," Rader said. "We tried a couple of different layouts and tested those with kids to see what worked and didn't."
The rocket-launch game was one of several interactive exhibits at the new museum created through collaborations with Bucknell students and faculty. During the museum's grand opening Sept. 16, the game was displayed in the space-and-science themed area alongside an "infinity mirror" representing the expanse of the cosmos and a wall filled with interchangeable pipes and slides for children to construct their own Rube Goldberg-style machine. Both exhibits were designed by Bucknell students expressly for the museum.
In fact, nearly 300 Bucknell undergraduates have helped get the museum up and running, from designing exhibits to helping organize and run fundraising events to planning for the institution's long-term sustainability. Their efforts have advanced the museum's mission while providing the students with valuable real-world experience.
"Without the support of Bucknell we couldn't make this happen," said Abby Gulden-Luthi '05, M'07, the museum's executive director. "They've given us so much by way of partnerships — the students are literally making us exhibits. We hope to continue a reciprocal relationship through research, letting children be observed, and letting early education majors continue to do things like storytime and education programming."
The opening of the museum inside the former Lewisburg Area High School, just a few blocks from the Bucknell campus, caps off a nearly two-year effort led by Gulden-Luthi and Professor Erin Jablonski, chemical engineering. Jablonski said she wants the museum to be an asset for both the children of the Susquehanna Valley region and Bucknell, while offering new life for an important community hub that became vacant when a new high school opened last December.
"I think it's going to be great for the community," Jablonski said. "This is an anchor building, and people have lots of memories of the high school, so we want it to remain in use so that it stays in good shape and continues to exist as a community presence."
The 9,000-square-foot museum provides wide-ranging opportunities for children to learn, play and explore, whether they're digging for "dinosaur bones," climbing through a digestive-tract themed jungle gym or discovering a miniature Mars habitat. Its themed learning and imaginative play spaces include a stage where visitors can don costumes and put on performances before a child-size amphitheater; a mock grocery store that aims to teach kids about nutrition; and a health-care themed room with a miniature doctor's office, x-ray light board and operating table; as well as an event space and educational gift shop.
Bringing Diverse Resources to Bear
Students and faculty who helped bring the project to life represent a similarly broad cross-section of the University, lending expertise from their backgrounds in design, management, education and the arts.
Ayla Rauhala '18, an accounting & financial management major, helped the museum as part of the class Should We Start This Company?, which is taught by Jablonski. She worked with two other students to write a complete business plan — gathering demographic information, projecting financial information and brainstorming ways to market the new museum. "The business plan we created helped Professor Jablonski apply for certain grants for the organization, and put the museum well on its way to opening," Rauhala said.
Alexandra Levy '18, an early childhood education major, meanwhile helped organize a volunteer fundraiser for the museum last fall. Levy planned not only traditional fall-fun activities like decorating gourds and sack races for the "Munchkins and Pumpkins" event, but also developed science-based activities for children attending the event with her adviser, Professor Lori Smolleck, education.
"This project was very important to me because I created and came up with the ideas," Levy said. "Science is a discovery-based topic, and to see the students actively participate in the stations I designed showed me the excitement children can have when presented with thoughtful activities. To see the look in the children's eyes of having fun while learning was priceless."
Still other students were directly involved in creating exhibits for the museum. In addition to Hammer, Rader and Zhang's rocket launch senior design project, Jablonski linked the museum to the Gizmo Expo, an annual first-year engineering challenge in which more than 200 students take part, as well as the 2017 Bucknell Fabrication Workshop (B-Fab), a one-week boot camp in rapid fabricating skills, where undergraduates toured the museum and designed science-focused exhibit prototypes. || Read more about the partnership between the museum and B-Fab here.
Continuing the Connection
The museum is now open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, and on Mondays for field trips and private events. Jablonski and other museum organizers expect the mutually beneficial ties between the museum and Bucknell to continue, and that opportunities for internships, design projects, research and experiential learning at the museum will only grow in the future. In fact, another engineering senior design team is already at work on a new exhibit for the museum.
"The museum will be a place where Bucknell students, faculty and alumni of all disciplines can meaningfully contribute with research, projects, volunteering and philanthropy," said Paden Troxell '15, M'17, a mechanical engineering major who spent three semesters designing exhibits for the museum. "In my opinion, design is the process of aligning the world that is with the one that ought to be, and the children's museum project is an excellent example of this philosophy in action. Ten years from now, I hope to return to Lewisburg and allow my children to enjoy the fruits of our labor."