On a rainy Friday, children and parents are lining up at the door of Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland ahead of its 10 a.m. opening. Most of the children are running around, jumping up and down, tugging at their parents’ clothing or creating a high-pitched cacophony with their voices.
The other side of the building isn’t nearly as exciting, at least at this time of day. There are two domed observatories with three large telescopes: Leah, an 8-foot telescope; Rachel, a 20-foot telescope; and Nellie, a 30-foot, research-quality telescope; and Wrightman Observatory Plaza, a paved outdoor space where the observatories are located. To the right of the plaza, sits an excavator and the beginnings of a foundation on a fenced-in muddy hill, where there used be grass. That’s the construction site where the latest addition to the center, a 3,200-foot, $2 million Environmental Education Deck, is being built.
The addition will feature 12 interactive exhibits designed by the San Francisco-based Exploratorium, aimed at encouraging Chabot’s visitors to explore the area’s natural surroundings, including the dense forest of Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park, which is only a few minutes away. Chabot officials are using $1 million from Measure WW, which was approved by voters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties in 2008 to preserve open space and wildlife habitat, and $1 million from the city of Oakland to fund the project.
“Chabot is located in this amazing natural setting up in the redwoods,” says Adam Tobin, executive director of Chabot. “And we want to take full advantage of this location.”
The interactive exhibits are designed so that visitors can explore the “celestial and terrestrial” wonders surrounding the center, as Tobin says.
When talking about the exhibits planned for the deck, Tobin is as excited as the children who are now exploring Chabot with their parents. “That’s the cool stuff,” Tobin says. There will be a “Sound Observatory,” which will feature noises collected for NASA’s sound library and other field researchers. There will be a heat camera that will allow visitors to see infrared light waves. There’s the “Sky Station,” which will feature a mirror that reflects the different colors of the sky, and a “Sky Mosaic” will teach visitors how the sky’s water content and the direction of the sun affect its coloration.
The Environmental Education Deck will provide space for the center to host outdoor camping trips for children in the area, as well as providing educational opportunities during their normal operating hours. “The WW project created the opportunity to create this outdoor camping experience and an outdoor education experience, particularly with the hope that of attracting kids from Oakland and beyond who might not otherwise have an opportunity to experience such an outdoor natural setting,” Tobin said.
Sheryl Stuart, director of institutional advancement of Chabot and vice chair of its fundraising board, said the addition will create more space for events. The center already hosts special events on the first Friday of every month, when visitors can pay $5 instead of the normal $14 to $18 for admission, and events for rare celestial occurrences like the recent total solar eclipse. She said the deck will create more accessibility than the outdoor area the center used before.
During the solar eclipse, the plaza “was filled, shoulder-to-shoulder, to capacity,” Stuart said. “The expansion will allow for more people to be here, safely, together observing celestial events, and that’s an attraction.”
Shawn Lani, founding director of the Studio for Public Spaces, said that designing the exhibits— some of which will be larger and stationary, like the Sky Mirror, and some of of which are smaller and mobile, like pinhole cameras—will give visitors multiple ways to interact with the deck and its exhibits. “You offer groups a place where they can gather and have a communal experience, or if a kid just wants grab some observation [tools] and run with it, they’re welcome to do that as well,” he said.
The staff members at the Studio for Public Spaces have been studying how to use the outdoors for learning for 16 years, with a focus on helping people develop observation skills and explore with intentional curiosity. They applied that knowledge when designing the deck, Lani said.
“I think it’s easy to look at a landscape and think that it’s self-evident,” Lani said. “You take a person to a beach and they say ‘Oh, isn’t it beautiful?’ and, in fact, it is beautiful. But there are certain ways of framing observation that invites people to take a second look and become better observers. So, you might frame a landscape in a way that it becomes slightly more legible, or you might see it in a new way.”
He used the heat camera as an example. “The thermal camera exhibit out there will allow you to see the heat signature building at pretty much anything you point it at,” he said. “And that’s a way of seeing the world and that intends to intrigue people … And if you see the world in a new way that might lead to new questions. That’s what we mean by intentional curiosity. People have it, but it’s a muscle that needs to be exercised.”
The creation of spaces at Chabot where visitors can direct their own learning is part of a transformation that the center has been going through since Tobin, who previously worked at the Exploratorium, was named executive director in 2015. Tobin said that one of his goals coming into the job was to “strengthen a community of learning and experimentation” and do outreach to people who don’t normally come to the center.
“This is part of a two-year transformation process, which is going to continue at Chabot, where we hope that our experiences become more dynamic, more engaging [and] rotate more often,” he said. “So you will probably see more and more new programs … and hear more and more about what we hope are great learning opportunities at Chabot.”