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Adler Planetarium's Community Design Lab And 'Mission Moon' Blast Off

By Marielle Shaw in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 16, 2015 3:25PM

Chicago’s Museum Campus is not what we’d call a “hidden gem.” Instead, it’s a glittering diamond smack in the center of the city, waiting to be explored. Now that summer’s finally upon us, it’s even more full of life with street vendors and trail trekkers galore. And while you may have set sail with the Vikings at the Field Museum or stood in “aww” of our favorite baby otter over at the Shedd Aquarium, we wonder when the last time was you set foot in the Adler Planetarium.

It’d been way too long for us, and we found that things have changed a lot. Adler is celebrating its 85th anniversary, and we’re finding that everything old is new again. Since the appointment of Michelle B. Larson, PhD as CEO in 2012, a heavy focus has been placed on engaging visitors more, encouraging science literacy and giving visitors an active role.

We got the exciting opportunity to tour the recently opened Community Design Lab with Annie Vedder, Adler’s Associate Director of Experience Development, and it was easy to see how her vision aligned with the overall goals of the planetarium. The Community Design Lab, which opened on June 7, has a drop-in format, allowing visitors to come in whenever curiosity strikes and participate, so long as there are seats for them. Each session lasts about 30 minutes and there are several different projects which can be presented. We watched a field trip full of kids design a telescope mount for their smartphones, which would allow them to take pictures of all sorts of amazing astronomical objects.

What’s particularly wonderful about this lab experience is how much freedom it allows visitors. Materials and tools line the walls, and there are Adler staffers on hand to facilitate, but there is no step-by-step instructions. Kids are encouraged to think for themselves about how a mount should work, and then test it out on one of Adler’s telescopes. It’s a great way for kids to get some of the concepts of lab science- testing out their ideas, fine tuning after failures and collaborating with others to find things that will work. Then, they can have their designs displayed on a wall of the lab for others to see and be inspired by. By not instructing kids with a step-by-step guide, Vedder explained, you’re giving them the chance to see science as not only ruled by numbers and laws, but to see the creative side of it. And when they’re allowed to test, fail and try again, their eventual success connects with them even more.

After our time in the lab, we ventured over to Mission Moon. This exhibit, which opened in April, tells the story of the American space program and the race to the moon. What’s exceptional though is the way the story is told. Mission Moon personalizes the journey to space by telling it through the eyes of Gemini and Apollo astronaut Captain James A. Lovell. The exhibit is an affecting mix of the story of his individual journey, from his childhood declaration, “I want to be a rocket engineer,” his rejection from the Mercury program, acceptance for Gemini and beyond. Visitors get to see what it was like inside Gemini 12, which sits in the center of the exhibit, but they also get to experience what it was like for Mrs. Lovell, listening to her husband and his colleagues via a squawk box in their home, but never being able to respond, no matter what she heard. Visitors can also take on the roles of mission control for Apollo 13 and work together to find out what systems they could power back on without overloading the system, a very real way to touch a space crisis.

We thought the personal narrative, both through the broadcasts and through Lovell and his family’s experiences, was an amazing way to bring visitors into the story. This was interaction in a different sense, but just as powerful.

If you haven’t been to the Adler in a while, now is the time to go. See the films, work in the lab, catch a beautiful view of the city from the café or Adler steps and experience the story of the trip to the moon. Tickets, exhibit info and hours available here.