Last Saturday, the Pensacola MESS Hall opened in downtown Pensacola. It’s a children’s science museum founded by Dr. Megan Pratt, researcher at the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) and member of the Pensacola City Council, and it’s starting out as a two-month pilot program this summer.
The name is an acronym (Math, Engineering, Science & Stuff) that also describes what kids do at the museum: they get to pick out different “mess kits,” each containing the materials for a different experiment. Pratt says this is a more engaging form of interaction than many of the push-button exhibits in other science museums.
“Science museums in the sixties started doing hands-on exhibits, and they’re a great innovation beyond what had been going on [previously],” she said. “But now a lot of the leaders in science museums have started to realize that, instead of having the museum be the expert and teach you, ‘here’s the science fact you’re learning today,’ they want to make it more that the kids get to figure things out and think more like scientists themselves. So most of the things we’re doing here are very open-ended, for kids to think for themselves.”
On any given day, kids will be able to choose from twenty different mess kits, and they’ll change daily to ensure it’s always a different experience. Among the kits available Saturday were chromatography, paper helicopters, and circuits. When a child finishes one mess kit, they’re welcome to take their tray back and get another.
There are also daily design challenges — like building the tallest free-standing tower from a single sheet of paper — and a number of permanent exhibits that include a harmonograph, an energy bike donated by Gulf Power, and a wall of changeable tracks called “Marble Run.”
“They’ll probably try some of the wind tubes, or the Blown Away [exhibit], because those are sort of easy to approach, but they don’t have to,” Pratt said. “They might come in and say, ‘Oh mom, my friend brought slime, and I want to do slime,’ and they go straight to getting the slime.”
The experiments are aimed at elementary school-aged children, but older children will enjoy them as well — as evidenced by the teenage volunteers who staff the museum. Pratt says the secret is not to make learning seem like a chore.
“I did [the tessellations mess kit] with a class one time, and I said, ‘okay guys, we’re going to do math today,’ and they all groaned,” she recalled. “By the end of the class they were like, ‘well, if you had told us it was art, we would have been happier.’ And I said, ‘But it’s not art, it’s math!’ So it’s a good way to approach things — where you’re learning some of those skills, but it’s not done in a teaching way. It’s very open and exploratory.”
The museum has been a longtime dream of Pratt and her husband, Dr. Jerry Pratt. They’ve been involved with IHMC’s Science Saturdays and the I LOVE Science group, and attendees would frequently ask them about expanding into a more permanent setting. Last fall, they decided to make it happen.
After months of planning, fundraising, and searching, they found a location for their summer trial — 21 West Romana Street, formerly the Suite Ultra-Lounge nightclub — and got access to the building on May 25. The next eight days saw a whirlwind of cleaning, painting, and installation work. The results are impressive: brightly colored walls, an open floor plan filled with kid-friendly tables and stools, and geometric wooden sculptures suspended from the ceiling.
While we were talking, a parent named Dawn asked if it would be okay to take her daughter to lunch and come back.
“I didn’t expect to want to be here forever,” Dawn said. “We thought we’d just come in and check it out, but now we want to stay and stay.”
This summer’s pilot program for the museum is scheduled to run through July. If there’s enough interest, Pratt would like to find a permanent location, which will require both attendance and the continuing generosity of donors.
“If you could run science museums just on ticket [sales], Disney would do it,” Pratt said. “We’re trying to answer a lot of things this summer — the money, the interest — so if people want to come, this is their chance.”
The Pensacola MESS Hall is open Wednesday through Friday, 10-2, and Saturday, 10-5. (Today, June 7, they’ll be open until 6:30 to coincide with the Fiesta Day Parade.) Admission is $5 per person, and all children must be accompanied by an adult. For more information, call 1-877-YES-MESS or visit pensacolamesshall.org.