STEAM at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Last month the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum hosted the Washington, D.C., chapter of Creative Mornings, a monthly breakfast lecture series for creative communities around the world. The December theme was education, and the lecture featured speaker Michael Hulslander, Manager of Onsite Learning at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Hulslander spoke about his personal trajectory as an educator, designing creative environments for the Smithsonian museum online and offline, the new “maker space” and the Explainer program.


Each Creative Mornings talk starts with filling out a nametag with a question related to that month’s theme. The prompt was “The best way to describe my relationship with science is _____________.”

Photo by Lexey Swall

I wrote “faulty,” making a pun out of the earth science term “fault,” as Earthquakes was one of the few science courses I had to take in university. When Hulslander asked the room of more than 200 creative professionals what they had written, he correctly guessed that most responses were similarly negative.

“The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”
—Albert Einstein

He admitted “understanding STEM is tough” but that art and science go hand in hand, especially when creating learning environments at a museum. His job is to figure out ways to get all visitors interested in STEM using design and creativity. When he realized that the question most asked of astronauts is, “How do you use the restroom?”, the museum developed a full-scale mock-up of an actual shuttle toilet and programming to teach visitors about how to use the toilet. Hulslander cited the example as a way that the Smithsonian infuses an A into STEM in all of its exhibitions.

Lifelong Learning

Though he leads the National Air and Space Museum’s science education and learning centers, Hulslander is not an astronaut or an astrophysicist. His interest in science started at a young age, when he always wanted to take things apart and mix chemicals. In college, Hulslander studied zoology and mathematics, working his way up at a zoo from caring for the animals in the petting zoo to educating visitors about the animals. From there, he worked in education departments at Busch Gardens Zoological Park in Florida, the Orlando Museum of Science and Industry, the Orlando Science Center and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

A self-proclaimed “science and museum geek,” Hulslander nonetheless had to quickly learn a lot about engineering and aerospace science when he started at the National Air and Space Museum. For example, he had to learn how airplanes actually fly.

IPOP = Ideas, People, Objects, Physical

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has more than 8 million yearly visitors of all ages from all over the world. Developing engaging, memorable and educational exhibitions and programming is a unique puzzle for the most visited museum in the country.

Hulslander talked about IPOP, a theory of experience preference, which was developed after observations and interviews with visitors to the Smithsonian museums were conducted between the 1990 and 2014. IPOP is an acronym for ideas, people, objects and physical, four typologies that visitors most often note as their primary interests. The museum takes IPOP into account in all areas of program development in order to create imaginative and engaging learning environments.

For example, in the Moving Beyond Earth Room, where the lecture was held, specific decisions were made for layout, lighting, model design, visual effects and content. The space crafts hanging from the ceiling and jutting up from the floor, the dimmed blue and white lights, the planet sweeping across the north wall, and the giant knobs and buttons waiting to be pushed and pulled were all intentionally designed with IPOP in mind.

Another example is the How Things Fly Exhibition, the museum’s premier “hands-on” gallery. The success of this exhibit has led the museum to rethink the design of other rooms. There’s a huge 747 on the south wall with colored sections that signify different air pressure zones to teach about the changes that occur on an aircraft. There are brightly colored panels and windsocks that represent different STEM concepts throughout the exhibition. The floor, an often overlooked space in museum installations, has accurate runway markings that serve as another teaching tool and subconsciously prompt kids to mimic an airplane going down the runway.

Design Hangar: A Maker Space

Hulslander revealed a new addition to the museum — the Design Hangar, which is scheduled to open in early 2015. This maker space will allow visitors to work with a variety of supplied materials to solve different challenges. For example, visitors will work to create an airplane that will hit a target or create an object that will lift to a certain height in a wind tunnel. Hulslander said that visitors spent 32 minutes on average on these challenges, which is more than twice as long as time spent in other exhibitions. He believes that encouraging visitors to create their own designs and solve these challenges will help them not only master the science concepts, but also practice creative problem solving, collaboration and critical thinking. Once a challenge is completed, trained Explainers will pose new challenges to teach a new concept or push the visitor to expand his or her understanding.

What’s an Explainer? An Explainer is a high school or college student who helps museum visitors understand the significance of a particular artifact or the science concepts presented in an exhibition. They interact with visitors through a variety of hands-on activities and can be found throughout the museum seven days a week. Part of Hulslander’s job is to train the Explainers, who receive hundreds of hours of STEM training before they start working on the floor with visitors.

Virtual Visitors

When the Explainers aren’t actively engaging with visitors in the museum, they are talking to virtual visitors online. Visitors can submit questions about how things fly via the How Things Fly website, and the Explainers perform research and engage with science professionals to provide the answers.

Every Creative Mornings lecture is eye opening and moving, but this particular talk highlighted how one of the most prestigious and established institutions in America is tackling STEM head on by infusing it with the arts at every opportunity. After the talk, Hulslander noted that he’s not just educating visitors, but educating the leaders of the museum to understand why learning terms like scaffolding and multiple intelligences aren’t just buzz words in the education world, but concepts that need to be fleshed out into the museum itself. If an institution that serves millions is able to innovate for better learning outcomes for all types of learners, maybe there’s hope that our education system can do the same.

USC Rossier’s commitment to innovative STEM learning is realized in its unique collaboration with Mattel Children’s Foundation. Mattel’s HOT Wheels toys have been built into a research-based curriculum for fourth graders, which is now available to teachers online.

If you are interested in improving the learning outcomes of your students or learning how to effect change in an educational institution such as the Smithsonian, check out USC Rossier School of Education’s online programs.