Tech entrepreneurs help guide the Exploratorium’s future digital efforts

By Richard Nieva , written on April 17, 2013

From The News Desk

When LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman was courting his now-wife Michelle, he would take her up to the Palace of Fine Arts to the Exploratorium for dates. A native of the East Bay in California, Hoffman knew the place well: a San Francisco landmark science museum full of touchable exhibits that teach lessons in physics, chemistry, and all of the applied sciences.

Classic exhibits include a shadow room where visitors can pose against a backlit wall while a machine captures their shadows against it – like a retro iPod commercial before those ads ever came out. Or a swivel chair that you can move by holding a spinning bicycle wheel in your hands. Or magnetic sand. (By the way, I’m speaking from personal experience here. My first visit to the museum was on a field trip in the second grade. Back then the sand was my favorite.)

A multi-billion dollar company later, Hoffman is a member of the museum’s board of directors, which raised more than $300 million to help move the Exploratorium from its aging home in the Marina district of the city to a slick new location on San Francisco’s bustling waterfront at piers 15 and 17. Today the Exploratorium opened its doors after a decade of planning, with a dedication ceremony that included speeches by San Francisco mayor Ed Lee and California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.

The museum’s board is an eclectic bunch, including tech notables like Hoffman and Jack Dorsey, cofounder of Twitter and Square. There’s also Jeff Huber, senior vice president of commerce and local at Google, and Craig Silverstein, director of infrastructure at Khan Academy, and several Silicon Valley VCs like Divesh Macan of Iconiq Capital. (Not to mention one ex-Grateful Dead member, drummer Mickey Hart.)

George Cogan, the board’s chairman, was responsible for bringing on several of the tech entrepreneurs when he took over in 2007. “Anything goes here," he says. "Entrepreneurs are created. We don’t talk about that much. We talk about teachers and education, but not that." He says Hoffman was attracted to the project partly because of the education aspect, but also because it is a “breeding ground for entrepreneurs.”

The place has been a beloved institution among Bay Area folks since its founding in 1969, but it holds a special significance for techies, since its hand-on ethos is what entrepreneurialism and engineering prowess are made of. David Chu, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, dedicated the day to "the makers and inventors."

And here’s where the entrepreneurs and the museum's educational efforts come together. The Exploratorium has a rich history in educating youngsters and training educators. In fact, the Exploratorium’s website is a “.edu” because in 1993 it was the 600th website ever created, and snagged the tag before it was set aside for use only by colleges and universities. The museum has a well-regarded science teacher induction program, which trains new educators around the Bay Area. Cogan boasts that teachers who have gone through the program, which teaches lessons in pedagogy and distilling educational content, are 90 percent likely to be teaching science after five years, compared to 50 percent for those who haven’t taken the program.

But the brand’s education efforts for the next decade are heavily reliant on its Internet presence, and this is where the connection with entrepreneurs pays off. “That’s the real value of the brain trust,” says Cogan.

The museum has released two apps: Color Uncovered and, most recently, Sound Uncovered, which lets users explore the how and why of sound, like how a saxophone makes noise or why the sound of gum chewing annoys some people. Cogan says the techy board members, specifically Khan Academy’s Silverstein – who was also Google’s very first employee – will be very involved with guiding projects like that in the near future, and helping to guide the direction of the museum’s digital efforts.

But what’s refreshing is that it looks like the kids here today could care less about apps, enthralled with ball bearings and whiffle balls and the other stuff of science fair lore. Which reminds me, I’ve got to get back there soon to go find that magnetic sand.