This review is part of my “destinations” series about science museums and other hands-on STEM activities.
The Arizona Science Center is a large science museum in downtown Phoenix in Heritage Square. Their video says they have “more than 300 exhibits on four floors”. They also have a planetarium, theater, cafe, a gift shop, and CREATE – a 6500 square foot maker space.
Their current special exhibition (through September 2, 2019) is Mummies of the World. It features 40 real human and animal mummies and 85 rare artifacts from ancient people from Europe, South America and Ancient Egypt.
Their permanent exhibits include these and more:
- Spheres and Gears – an outdoor water play area
- Many Hands Make a Home – a construction-themed exhibit
- All About Me and W.O.N.D.E.R. – about the human body and the brain
- Get Charged Up – hands-on exploration of electricity, simple machines, and physics
- My Digital World – about past, present, and future technologies
- Forces of Nature(with the Immersion Theater!) and Solarville
This video is part of a program called PAL – Partners to Assist in Learning *, which supports visitors with autism. But I think the video is a helpful for all parents as an overview of what your visit will be like.
Spheres and Gears
This is an outdoor water play area. There was a water jet that you could use to launch balls onto a track (see the video below), a place you could build pipe systems with PVC pipes for the water to run through, a huge sculpture that used an Archimedes screw to pull the balls to the top, and a vortex that you can throw balls into and watch them get sucked down to the bottom. Very appealing to young kids!
There was a dated airplane cabin. If your child is over age five or so and has flown before, there’s little to hold interest here. But a young child might love playing there, and if a child has never been on an airplane before (or has anxiety about flights) it could be a great training option.
There was also an area for building paper airplanes, and this tool to launch them, which was pretty cool! It goes so fast, it’s hard to even see it happen.
Many Hands Make It Happen
This is a construction themed gallery. There’s some static exhibits, like displays of historical house construction and different kids of tool boxes (these really needed interpretive signs to explain why a carpenter carries different tools than an electrician does), interactive exhibits, like one that allowed you to choose the materials for a house (cabinets, carpet, etc.), one where you could assemble PVC pipes in the plumbing, and one that showed that if you turn on too many appliances on one circuit, you can blow the circuit breaker (needed brighter lights to see the display better). There were also big blue foam blocks kids could build with. (These blocks make for good collaborative play and lots of learning – I overheard these young kids saying “we need to increase the stability – use a block to brace things better at the bottom.”) There was also (I think!) a playhouse for very young children with some puzzles for hands-on play.
This was actually a disappointing exhibit. They had a toy ATM that we’ve also seen at another museum where you can sort of pull something out partway and re-insert it to represent deposits and withdrawals. Once a child has played for a minute or so, it gets old.
There was another activity where you could choose items to spend money on (represented by the green cards in the right hand picture) and slide them in the slots until you “ran out of money” by filling the slots. It’s an OK activity for young children. But in order to put something in a slot, you had to be adult height – kids can’t do it on their own.
There were also some questions to ask kids about how to save money, make money decisions and so on… but it just didn’t quite work and it took a lot of space for not a lot of interest. We’ve seen better banking displays at children’s museums. (And it’s also odd to find this exhibit at a science museum when there was nothing science-y about it. I guess it’s there because it’s math? And because Chase Bank donated money….)
This is a cool set of exhibits about the human brain! (The name stands for: Walton Optimal Neurological Discovery Education and Research Center.)
There was a biofeedback experience, some videos to test visual memory, a thing that measured your heart rate, then played a very loud and very startling sound so you could see how that affected your heart rate, and lots more. My favorite was this brain display, comparing reptile brains, small mammal brains, primate and human brains. So cool to see the difference! I know about human brain development, and am very familiar with the ideas from Daniel Siegel about how when children have meltdowns, they regress to their brain stem level and limbic system level of development – out of the more advanced brain functions of the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex. It was fascinating to see snake brains, which are so much less complex than ours.
They do daily demonstrations on Nikola Tesla and on the Electric Brain.
All About Me
We saved this exhibit for last because I love visiting exhibits about the systems of the human body, and unfortunately the museum was closing right when we got to it. You can read about it on their website.
Upstairs, there was a big and nice display of stones, especially those native to the area, and information about copper mining and other local geology. For our busy 8 year old, this didn’t hold a lot of interest, but I remember as a tween being fascinated by geology displays at the Denver Museum of Science.
An exhibit about electricity and physics. Lots of interactive hands-on discovery. A magnetic ball wall – where you mount pipes on the wall like a maze, drop a ball in the top and see if it can make it to the bottom. (Learn how to make your own ball wall.) A build-an-electric circuit display where you place the components on top of the matching illustration. (I think you could make directions for Snap Circuits like this which would be easy for little kids to follow, unlike the actual Snap Circuits directions.) There was a thing where you slide a ball down a ramp, and it bounces at an angle to go through hoops. A Bernoulli display where you can float plastic balls on air currents. Pulleys to lift yourself up with – clearly demonstrating how using multiple pulleys means less force is needed than when it’s a single pulley. A race the spinner down a ramp game. A wheel to spin to generate electricity. And a bed of nails – where the nails are retracted when you lay on the bed, then you press a button, and they raise up, lifting you – my son was dubious about this one when he laid down on it, then was excited about how “it didn’t hurt at all.”
For $5, you can ride a bicycle on a 90 foot long wire that is suspended 15 feet above the ground. There are height, weight and age requirements.
There was a ham radio exhibit where you could sit in a recreation of a ham radio room, with maps on the walls, equipment, and so on. There was a nanotechnology exhibit – find the related nanotechnology podcast here.
There was a board game about designing an exhibit for space and working to have it approved to go up on a mission.
There was an exhibit on making invisible things visible using various technologies: infrared, ultraviolet, magnification, and magnetic fields. You could take a cartridge and insert it in each of these devices and view something different.
I honestly spent most of my time on one exhibit that was about designing spacecraft. You’d build the container, add power, communication, navigation, and science equipment, and then test it on a spinning table and a shake table to see if it could survive a landing. I liked the checklist of things to include. This was a really well designed hands-on experience – fun for me as an adult, and engaging for kids.
Forces of Nature
Displays about wind, water, earthquakes, and more. Included a display of Grand Canyon geology, exhibits like the fan that blows the sand dunes, vortexes of air and so on. There was an earthquake shake table (see below for theirs – you can build your own for earthquake science at home).
My favorite part was the immersion theatre – every 15 minutes, there’s a 5 minute show. This is basically a platform in the center of the room. You stand there and watch a movie about the forces of nature, and when the lightning flashes in the movie, bright lights flash at you, when you see lava, heat lamps blare, when the wind blows, fans blow at you, when the earth quakes, the platform shakes, and when it rains, you have water blown at you (enough that you get damp, but not wet enough to be an issue.) Watch the PAL video at the top of this post to see more of that in action. I thought this was really cool, and so did my son. You definitely feel the experience of a wind and rain storm!
The top floor is a long hallway dedicated to information about solar power, recycling, energy conservation. And there’s an entomology display of mounted insect exoskeletons. (i.e. dead bugs.) It includes a solar energy display on the roof. It was a fine exhibit, but we preferred some of the others.
They have a lovely planetarium, with comfy seating. It’s a little worn out – there were interactive touch pads on the arm rests where the audience members could answer pre-show trivia questions and the answers were tallied on the screen – the buttons were partially worn away, and it was hard to tell which color was which. We saw a show titled Stars of the Pharaohs. I fell asleep during it – not an uncommon occurrence for me, sadly. My husband says the show was nice looking, but low on content – he didn’t learn much from it. The Grand Tour of the Solar System might be better, if you’re newer to planetarium shows. (Our 8 year old has already seen MANY planetarium shows about the solar system because we’ve visited a lot of science centers.)
In this maker space, they have a router, a 3D printer, Arduino equipment, drill press, bandsaw, belt and disk sanders, a laser cutter, and more. They offer workshops, family workshops, and free challenge activities on Wednesday through Sunday afternoons.
The Practical Details
There is a restaurant called Bean Sprouts Cafe. They are supposed to be open daily from 10 – 4. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open when we were there. (Unfortunate because we arrived at 1:30, hoping to eat lunch before seeing the exhibits. We ended up getting cookies and chips from the concession stand outside the theater.)
Here is the cafe menu. And the PAL video says it is fine to bring food from home and eat in that area.
Planning a Visit
With our eight year old, we spent three hours there. We saw probably 80% of the permanent exhibits and saw a planetarium show. We would have happily spent another hour there just on the permanent exhibits, but the museum was closing. We did not see the special exhibit, and did not have a chance to try CREATE, which isn’t open on Mondays. There would be enough to do for 6+ hours there, but even though we’re huge science museum fans, after about 4 hours at any museum, we’re on overload. So, if we were local we would likely just do part of the museum one day, and come back another day for the rest.
We were there on a Monday afternoon during the school year (spring break where we’re from, but not in Phoenix), and things were quiet. There were people in all the exhibits with us, but never a crowd, and we never had to wait to try anything. Their website says weekday mornings can be busier with kids on field trips.
Hours & Fee (current as of April 2019)
Open Daily 10 am – 5 pm. CREATE open Tuesday through Sunday 10 am – 5 pm.
$18 for adults; $13 for kids age 3 – 17. You can become a member for the cost of about 5 admission tickets, and that membership offers admission for two for a year plus discounts on other add-ons.
For non-members, the special exhibit was $11.95 / 9.95. Planetarium show $9 / 8. Movie $7.95 / 6.95.
600 E. Washington St – between 5th and 7th St. Parking info.
The facility and all exhibits are wheelchair accessible (except the SkyCycle!). The website includes helpful details about bathroom accessibility, information about services for the hearing impaired in the theater, and more.
The museum is part of a program called PAL – Partners to Assist in Learning*, which supports visitors with autism, anxiety, and other learning differences. (It appears to be mostly a Phoenix area thing, but hopefully it will spread!) The video (embedded above) and the PAL guide offers tips about what parts of the museum might cause sensory overload for some kids, where they can take breaks, and other helpful topics. My son is autistic, and having this information in advance was very reassuring for him and for me.
Pros: Our quick summary of this science center: it’s really big – larger than most. It’s got several galleries which touch on a wide variety of topics and interests, yet within each gallery, there’s a nice coherent theme. There’s lots of nice hands-on exhibits, and good interpretive signs, and plenty to engage science interested folks from age 5 to adult. So, really there’s a lot of great stuff about this museum, and it could keep you entertained and engaged for hours!
Con: But… the museum also feels a little sad and neglected. There were many exhibits that were out of order. And there were no signs to warn you something wasn’t working, so you’d press a button and nothing would happen. After a while, it got discouraging. I’m sure 9 out of 10 exhibits were working, but you never knew when you were going to hit the next broken one.
Some of the problems would likely to be expensive to fix, and might not be possible. But some of those could have workarounds – like covering up a button with an interpretive sign that re-directed what the visitor could do with that exhibit. You just need some creative thinking to fix many of the issues.
And some of the problems had cheap and easy fixes. For example, in the Gears and Spheres zone, they really needed some straight PVC connectors to make the pipes more buildable, and I was thinking “they’re a couple bucks at Home Depot – someone could pick some up on their way into work.” Then we got to the Many Hands Make a Home exhibit, and there was an exhibit that only had straight PVC connectors and needed elbow connectors to make it work. So, they wouldn’t even need to go to Home Depot to fix this problem! They just need someone to pay attention. And care.
They would hugely benefit from hiring a tinkerer / handyman to just wander around the museum noticing what’s wrong and coming up with suggestions for how to fix it or how to re-design it, and then implementing those fixes. For Autism Acceptance Month, I’ve been reading a lot about employment challenges for autistic people, and I couldn’t help but think that this job could be the perfect job for just the right neuro-diverse person, who has that eye for detail, and passion for putting things in order.
There’s a lot of great exhibits, but the overall energy is low. With just a little attention to updating and maintaining, this could be one of the best science centers we’ve been to.
Find More Destinations
Learn about other children’s museums, science museums, and hands-on STEM experiences for kids at https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2019/04/15/destinations/.
For hands-on activities you can do at home, just check out any of my “themes” – they all include recommended songs, books, crafts, building projects, imaginary play themes, and science experiments.