At the Startle Station, visitors can see their own reactions when a balloon explodes nearby.

At the Startle Station, visitors can see their own reactions when a balloon explodes nearby.

For example, at a station designed to measure emotional reactions by graphing breathing patterns, visitors are given 12 cards with questions, such as “Name somebody you have a crush on.” Two people who don’t know each other can ask that question, but the experience is much more powerful when those two people are friends. “If you know the person, you can ask that question in a way that embarrasses them or gets at another emotion,” Thogersen points out. “The reaction you get is much stronger—and much more interesting.” Even activities that can be done alone, such as experiencing the toilet water fountain or measuring reaction time to sensory stimulus, are more fun when done with a partner.

Interestingly, because of the Exploratorium’s development process—exhibits are prototyped and released in groups over a long period of time—Thogersen didn’t realize that about half of the activities were designed for more than one person until after the whole exhibition had been completed. “We noticed it more in retrospect,” Thogersen admits. “It just kept happening, probably because it turned out to be the best way to explore something as abstract as the mind.”

Looking ahead, Thogersen and his colleagues are always thinking about innovative ways to design exhibits that elicit strong responses and bring about learning. The possibility of using computer visualizations to model phenomena that can’t be shown, such as the topography of the San Francisco Bay, is one new intriguing idea. This exhibit is currently on display. To introduce an element of interactivity, visitors are asked to use the cursor to drop a virtual can into the bay and then observe how far and in what direction the currents carry it. Visitors can drop the cans anywhere in the bay to compare currents, or they can drop in a whole flotilla to see how small differences in initial placement eventually bring the cans to very different places.

Aware that there is room for improvement, Thogersen acknowledges that finding new ways to excite visitors is an ongoing challenge. “We’re always stretching ourselves out of our comfort zone to push ways to bring about engagement,” he says. “We’re always looking for ways to show visitors really cool things that can happen.”14

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