It’s Full STEM Ahead in New Forces at Play Exhibit

by | Aug 10, 2016 | Forces at Play

We’ve all heard the buzz around the acronym STEM and its role in changing the education landscape. But what is STEM?

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But STEM is more than just a list of words. It’s about tackling challenges and creating solutions — all while enjoying the process.

Forces at Play in the 3M Gallery, the first of 10 new permanent galleries that Minnesota Children’s Museum is creating during our ongoing expansion and renovation project in downtown St. Paul, is rich in STEM learning. 

STEM thinking and actions include defining problems, developing multiple ideas to solve them, creating prototypes, and then testing, evaluating, and redesigning. A prime example of this in Forces at Play are the “blower build” stations, where visitors devise their own ping-pong ball launchers using tubes, hoses and valves.

Analyzing, Evaluating and Making Decisions

Nichole Polifka, director of learning and impact at Minnesota Children’s Museum, explains that much of the thinking behind STEM overlaps with the ideas behind the museum’s “powers of play,” which are seven essential, lifelong skills developed through play.

As a central guide to creating our new exhibits, exhibit developers worked with Nichole to assign each gallery a primary “power of play.” In the case of Forces at Play, the primary power of play is critical thinking.

Forces at Play exercises critical thinking skills in multiple ways — through identifying challenges, gathering information, creating and carrying out a plan, analyzing and evaluating effectiveness, making decisions about tweaks and changes, and determining whether things are working out as anticipated.

In Forces at Play, visitors will:

  • Create ball launchers with a variety of hoses, tubes, connectors and valves
  • Test their own contraptions
  • Create and test chain reactions using unusual materials
  • Imagine new ways to configure water hoses, brushes and sprayers

With the ultimate objective being open-ended and in the hands and minds of the visitors, there is an immense amount of room to explore and experiment.

Being Your Own ‘Agent of Learning’

“There’s a lot of power in people being their own agent of learning and we want to empower children to be that for themselves,” Nichole says. “We want our visitors to set up challenges for themselves, freely explore, ask questions, and take it all in in a joyful way.”

She pauses, “And get wet, back in the water area.”

Putting Power into the Child

Nichole says that ultimately what she wants to see is visitors focusing on the journey and not the destination, and that includes adults and their approach in supporting this play.

“I would like to hear adults say, ‘You worked really hard.’ ‘You tried different things.’ ‘You didn’t get frustrated.’ ‘You must be proud of yourself.’ to their children,” she says. “I hope to see them putting all that effort along the way back onto the child.”

STEM concepts are not just a buzzword but a set of thinking, reasoning, teamwork, investigative, and creative skills that visitors can use in all areas of their lives. STEM is quite literally everywhere. At Minnesota Children’s Museum, we are about championing the complementary and effective relationship of play and learning through action, and our new exhibit, Forces at Play, is a perfect example of that.  

Forces at Play opens Aug. 27, and the museum will remain open for play through November. After a four-month closure, the all-new museum will open in April 2017.

Molly Carlson is digital communications intern at Minnesota Children’s Museum.


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