Discovery Lab: Setting the Standard for National Children’s Museums

By: Abigail Chow

After years of anticipation, Tulsans have been celebrating–and flocking to–Discovery Lab, Tulsa Children’s Museum’s newest iteration, since its Grand Opening on January 24th, 2022. In its new home just south of the Gathering Place along Riverside Drive, the welcoming campus hints at exciting new things to discover and learn.

With exhibits like Ballapalooza, Fans and Fabric, and their iconic Tape Tunnels, Discovery Lab specializes in engaging and educational activities for families and learners of all ages.

Chip Lindsey, Discovery Lab’s Director of Education, explained that the institution is taking a very old fashioned approach to education by creating innovative learning opportunities outside the classroom.

“Schools are fairly new,” said Lindsey. “Discovery Lab is getting back to the roots of how humans have been learning for millennia, outside of schools, before there were schools.” 

He also noted that family groups form natural learning pods.

To that end, Lindsey works with a team that creates and delivers top notch programs and outreach as well as deep facilitation of experiences on the exhibit floor. 

“Our educators aim to create an environment where students don’t learn about science or hear about science or learn about the history of science, but they do science,” said Lindsey.

“The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture brought us a big bag of fresh cow eyes,” said Lindsey. “To open up this bag and pull one cow eye out in the science lab to do a dissection, you could see kids get locked in and they stayed right there listening to every word. That learner will never not know about cow eyes again. We want that transformation to happen. They would come back again and watch the same thing and see something different, but they were transfixed and transformed by that. Those kinds of interactions are priceless, but also rare. Schools don’t do it as much as you would want them to do because it’s messy, could be dangerous, could be expensive. A lot of valuable learning experiences get kind of shoved aside and it’s sad, but that’s something that we can lean into and we can really do that.”

The second floor of Discovery Lab houses the STEAM Center, 5 classrooms that Tulsa Public schools funded to serve their Pre-K through Elementary students, as well as students from other schools. Every year, Discovery Lab’s Educators will work with each student in Tulsa Public Schools from Pre-K through 6th grade. 

These encounters are designed to expose students to interesting phenomena and let their curiosity shape their investigation. 

“We get a chance to kind of shut the door on the teacher and find out what the kids already know. And then we really listen to where they want to drive the investigation. What really matters is what they want to learn,” said Lindsey. “Their interest is the hook that we use to get them involved.”

Like their world-famous neighbor, Gathering Place, Discovery Lab intends to position itself as a resource for all of Tulsa and beyond. Lindsey said there is potential for cross-promotion and collaboration between the two venues.  

Discovery Lab is already demonstrating its commitment to broad accessibility in several ways. Once a month they host an early opening to accommodate families who would benefit from a sensory friendly environment. Family memberships are priced to “pay for themselves” after three visits and give families the freedom to come in for shorter visits more frequently. Through their Accessible Discovery Program, Discovery Lab seeks to increase participation among families impacted by incarceration or the process of recovery.

Lindsey noted his gratitude to members and major donors who see their support of Discovery Lab as an investment in the entire community that will yield rewards many times over in the years to come. The value they place on learning is more than the market can bear, he said, and this support enables them to dream beyond dollars and cents to create joyful, transformative experiences through their exhibits, educational programs, and summer camps that spark a love of learning.

Lindsey also mentioned potential ways Discovery Lab can engage teens and adults with science. 

“There’s an old saying that people go to children’s museums when they’re in third grade, when their child is in the third grade, and when their grandchildren are third graders,” said Lindsey.

While the age range of children they are serving begins much younger, he acknowledges that as tweens and teens hit a stage of great learning potential, at the same time they’re wishing for more independence from the family group. One solution could be to create opportunities for teens to engage with the mission of Discovery Lab and continue to learn by volunteering and interning. Adults-only events could provide the right conditions for grown-ups to attend a special speaker, let their guard down and play. 

In everything they do, Lindsey said that Discovery Lab prioritizes learning and respects learners. Instead of designing their visitor experience to move you through the exhibits within a certain amount of time or influence you to spend a certain amount of money, their goal is to encourage natural learning and set the stage for transformative teachable moments. 

“We gauge our success on figuring out where the carpet is worn out. That’s a good exhibit,” said Lindsey. “Where are the nose prints on the glass? Which components keep breaking because they’re being loved to death?” 

Discovery Lab staff become students of the learners they serve. Their own careful observations about what’s happening among the exhibits keeps their enthusiasm for learning and learners fresh and dynamic. 

Discovery Lab is located at 3123 Riverside Dr, Tulsa, OK 74105. For safety reasons, children are not allowed without adults, and adults are not allowed without children. For more information go check out Discovery Lab’s website or call them at (918) 295-8144.

Now go out, be free, and discover your inner child at Discovery Lab.

Pssst…here’s a tip for having extra fun at Ballapalooza:

  1. Open up the deal
  2. Put three balls in
  3. Lift the bowling ball up about halfway
  4. Shoot it across and it will fall right at the people standing at the front of the exhibit

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