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A woman and child in a Children's Discovery Museum.

Illinois State student Simi Soaga works with a child at the Children's Discovery Museum as part of Physics Day.

ISU enlightens young minds at Children’s Discovery Museum

For more than 25 years, the Children’s Discovery Museum in Uptown Normal has been a leader in showing kids—and their parents—that learning and having fun go together in a way that is both natural and productive. Partnering with Illinois State University, whose very foundation was built on teaching and learning, has proved to be mutually beneficial to these like-minded and neighboring institutions.

The CDM, as it’s often called, first opened its doors in 1994 as a place for hands-on learning about the arts, sciences, and communications. A decade later the museum, in partnership with the Town of Normal, welcomed visitors to its new $4.5 million, 34,000-square-foot, LEED-certified home. After all these years, the place remains a big deal. For example, the museum welcomed its 2 millionth visitor this year.

For Jay Ansher, an experimental space plasma physicist and the general education lab coordinator for Illinois State University’s Department of Physics, he thought the new addition to the neighborhood might make a good partner in helping teach young people.

“We offered to collaborate when the museum moved into the neighborhood,” Ansher said. “We’re just a few blocks away.”

For the last 14 years, Ansher has conducted monthly Physics Day presentations for anyone who stops by the museum. Undergraduate students tag along to assist in providing hands-on demonstrations and fun experiments on a new topic every month.

During one Physics Day last spring, the topic was astronomy. The small children, who drop in with their parents, bring high energy and low attention spans typical of their age, but at least for a moment, they become interested in science.

“We don’t do a lot of teaching, but we dovetail with the museum’s philosophy of education through play,” said Ansher. “They get exposed in a hands-on way to some science concepts. The older kids might learn or come back to physics later on.”

Plus, there are benefits for the University. “It’s free programming, and it gives us free publicity. It’s a nice partnership that way,” he said.

A major focus at the museum is the educational approach known as STEAM. The acronym STEAM, like STEM, incorporates science, technology, engineering, and math, but adds art to the mix. STEAM covers a lot of educational ground, which means there’s not much that a child could be curious about and not find something out about by visiting the CDM.

Innovation Station, the area where Ansher can be found during a Physics Day visit, is a space in the museum where kids and families engage in STEAM by creating, discovering, investigating, and inventing. It is, by the museum’s own description, a place that “gives everyone a chance to apply problem-solving skills, test and revise their ideas, collaborate, and have fun.”

CDM Executive Director Beth Whisman said the relationship between the museum and Illinois State has multifaceted benefits for the museum, the University, and for children and families.

Man teaching children about physics

Jay Ansher, of the Department of Physics, has formed a long-term partnership with the Children’s Discovery Museum by offering hands-on demonstrations for students.

“Illinois State enhances the quality and depth of our public STEAM programs,” Whisman said. “We team up with Dr. Jay Ansher and his students for activities and physics demonstrations that keep our Innovation Station a dynamic space for learning and fun.”

Whisman said the ideas and collaboration that come out of working with Ansher and his students for Physics Day demonstrations help keep her team fresh and excited about how best to engage with its audience. In addition, she loves the energy and enthusiasm that Illinois State students and faculty bring to the museum floor and museum events.

“Kids and their adults pick up cues during these interactions that very clearly fit our mission of inspiring the love of learning through the power of play,” she said. “Our ISU partners are excited about their subject matter and their style of instruction, and that matters to kids.

“If they think you’re bored, believe me, they’ll be bored, and kids will tell you all about it.”

With a shared goal of inspiring learners, the museum and Illinois State work together in a number of ways.

“The strongest partnerships are with the Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology (CeMaST), Jay Ansher and the Physics Club; (Associate Professor) Cynthia Moore in biology education; University Galleries; and the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning,” Whisman said.

CDM invites children to University Galleries where they learn about a living artist and how they make their art. Then the children make their own art, using similar media or styles to what they observed.

CDM collaborates with CeMaST staff on a weeklong STEAM camp. CeMaST is also integral to the success of the museum’s annual Pushcart Derby, where participants design, build, test, and race their creations. The event also serves as an important fundraiser.

“ISU is helping provide a solid mission-oriented event that also raises awareness and funds for the museum,” Whisman said. “Those funds help us reach more children with affordable programs and engaging exhibits.”

Back at the Innovation Station, Ansher makes the most of any opening he sees for teachable moments. He describes the Celestron telescope he set up for the day and how light enters and reflects off mirrors at one end.

“You’re supposed to use it to look at something far, far away like a star,” he explains to a group of boys and girls.

One boy displays his interest by randomly trying to take apart the telescope. Rather than looking through it as the professor suggested, he unscrews pieces of it before moving on to the next thing that catches his attention. Ansher deftly saves the telescope without offending anyone while showing the patience of a father of an 8-year-old-boy (which he happens to be).

“I have to bring in equipment that’s durable and replaceable,” he says, with a smile. “They like to touch and grab at this age.”

He also brought along a model of the inner solar system, which consists of several planets, the sun, and the moon, attached by thin rods that are turned by small gears. This model’s design allows children to gently turn a crank that causes the moon to go around the Earth as the planet makes it way around the sun while rotating at the same time.

“Do you know how long it takes the Earth to go around the sun?” Ansher asks the group.

Illinois State student Scott Stemmons works with a child at the Children's Discovery Museum as part of Physics Day.

Illinois State student Scott Stemmons works with a child at the Children’s Discovery Museum as part of Physics Day.

His audience is unsure but interested.

“How long does it take to get through all four seasons?”

With some coaxing from her mother, a little girl answers: “A year!”

“Right!” Ansher responds.

And, so it goes until time is up.

The museum and Illinois State share many formal programs, but the connection runs even deeper.

“We also rely heavily on our volunteers and part-time staff, many of whom are Redbirds,” Whisman said. “The museum isn’t the same without our Illinois State relationships.”

Ansher gains a great deal of personal fulfillment from this outreach. “I have the best job in the world,” he says amid the light-hearted chaos fueled by small children buzzing in and
out of Innovation Station. “This is the fun part.”

ISU/CDM partnerships

  • Beekeeping Club
  • CeMaST
  • Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning
  • Chemistry Club
  • Department of Psychology
  • Department of Family and Consumer Sciences
  • Illinois Art Station
  • Physics Club
  • School of Biological Sciences
  • School of Communication
  • School of Kinesiology and Recreation
  • School of Music
  • School of Theatre and Dance
  • University Galleries

For more information about Illinois State events at the Children’s Discovery Museum, visit

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