Oakland hills’ Chabot space center refocused, reopening after 20 months
By Lou Fancher
Where but at the Chabot Space & Science Center in the Oakland hills can the average person build and test NASA space rovers and robots? Or catch a solar flare; play with plasma; experience a sonified earthquake or songbird; listen to 30 chimes ring out real-time carbon pollutant fluctuations in the Bay Area; see never-before-displayed spacesuits from the Mercury and Gemini missions and a fan blade from the world’s largest wind tunnel; or listen firsthand to stories of real NASA scientists and discover new pathways to next-generation careers in space exploration?
Heralding an innovative partnership with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley as the Chabot center reopens to the public Friday after a 20-month pandemic shutdown (it’s been closed since March 13, 2020), visitors will experience renovations made throughout the museum; new murals created by local artists; and an expanded array of hands-on activities and collaborative building centers.
Ironically, in separate conversations with Executive Director Adam Tobin and Liz Austerman, Chabot’s vice president of museum experience, the emphasis is not on exploring outer galaxies but on earthly matters. Chabot’s closure during the pandemic provided a rare opportunity to consider and reconfigure the institution’s internal structures, systems and practices.
More broadly, it stimulated inquisitiveness and allowed time for the leaders and staff to examine the ways in which Chabot relates to the local community. Tobin says the current environment — with science used as a political football, the proliferation of social media making scientific facts nearly impossible to discern from falsehoods and inequities in STEM education laid bare — intensified and made the necessity of self-examination more critical.
“Interestingly enough, (for) the lessons we knew in theory, the pandemic deepened,” says Tobin. “The need for critical thinking, data analysis, informed citizenry and an informed science mindset has never been more critical. Our work has never been needed more. It was an opportunity in crisis to think differently. The pieces have been thrown up into the air: education, where we work and learn, how we communicate. How can we put these pieces back together in ways that provide more opportunities for kids, that connect dots in ways they’ve not been connected traditionally?”
Tobin says he’s personally proud of the ways the institution has embraced change. While rebuilding structures to achieve higher impact, a critical lens has focused on balance: creating compelling science experiences and improving demographic diversity and access while maintaining essential, core convictions. Underscoring everything is a belief that science is for everyone. That primary component drives Chabot and receives fresh emphasis as the museum aims to become a model of innovative community-based partnerships built with equity and inclusion in mind that can be replicated across the country.
Highlighting the NASA partnership, Tobin stresses four key elements. Firstly, Chabot has unprecedented access to NASA content.
“There is so much happening on a daily basis, and I argue that it should be more visible to the public. We have access to that regular drumbeat of discoveries, experiments and questions they’re asking,” he says.
The relationship means actual NASA staff will interact with visitors.
“Beyond the science, how do you make visible the careers, people and opportunities there? It increases visibility, and it’s frankly inspiring.”
A second component builds momentum with hands-on museum experiences that provide engagement and stimulate questions about what science is and can be in the future. A third feature has impact beyond Chabot: “What can learning everywhere mean for Oakland? Getting to where kids are, particularly where kids are underserved. These are not single one-and-done’s. Repeat touches build skills. Imagine a NASA pop-up in deep East Oakland,” Tobin says.
The fourth factor connects middle and high school students directly to internships and tangible pathways to careers at NASA or in the STEM workforce.
Chabot’s Austerman reinforces Tobin’s promise.
“I’ve been with Chabot a long time, and one thing that became important was humanizing science. We recognize there is a lot of inequity out there. It was important to do community listening while closed. With all the moving parts of reopening, we’ve added the voices of LGBTQ scientists, works from local artists and more. We hope that will make it more welcoming and will break down the ‘science-is-not-for-me’ ideas,” she says.
Austerman notes that some people working at NASA have unexpected career paths and that people can play many roles in science: Lawyers study the legality of space exploration; artists make science visual; historians chronicle the journey to discovery, high school interns support new research initiatives.
“A lot of people can plug in. Showing different avenues of getting into the sciences relates to the career wall we have where you can fill in your interests and see where you might fit in.”
Recognizing that science-literate kids are the scientists of the future, Austerman suggests that Chabot and science worldwide benefit from providing greater diversity and access.
“We have to care for each other, and science helps us do that. Science protects us and pulls us together. People have struggled with this pandemic, and we need to use scientific curiosity to work and act collectively to better our society, heal the earth, learn more, take action. We always want to foster that drive.“