Madison is a town rich in educational opportunities for kids and families. It is definitely not short on science activities, venues, and events that strive to make science accessible to children of all ages. Below is a (likely non-exhaustive) list of places and activities for families to experience science together. Toward the end I also list some venues more appropriate for adult explorers!
The Wonders of Physics is a free program (you do need a ticket) that takes place in February of each year and is also part of the annual Physics Fair at UW-Madison. The Wonders of Physics is a fast-paced, engaging show filled with demonstrations to educate and generate interest in both modern and classical physics among yound and old alike. Ticket requests start for February shows starts in early January of each year.
Dinosaurs in Madison? Check! This is the place to check out with dinosaur and/or rock loving children. My rock loving son enjoys this museum immensely. The Museum holds story time each month (1st and 3rd Thursdays at 10:30 a.m.). The museum is generally open for self-guided tours; however, if you’d like to arrange a tour, you can do so for groups of all ages at a minimal cost.
My son can literally spend hours at this museum as everything here is meant to be touched and used to experiment. The museum is unstaffed; however, tours can be requested and arranged. This is a great museum for mid-late elemetary aged kids and above. It can be a very crowded space before and after the annual Wonders of Physics shows, so I suggest setting a date with your kids to go there separate from the Wonders of Physics show weekends.
Generally held the 1st Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to noon, the Saturday Science events focus on a different topic each month. Kids and families are met with hands-on learning opportunities related to each month’s theme. Past themes include Life with Robots, The Science of Food, Badger Athletics, and more.
A state-wide celebration of science generally held in October of each year. Many different UW-Madison departments and science-realted industries bring all kinds of hands-on learning experiences to many locations around Madison and around the state of Wisconsin. A few of the 2017 activities in Madison included learning about reptiles, preparing media for stem cell growth, creating a cellfie with a swab of cells from your mouth, learning about topography in a sandbox, and more!
The annual (48th annual in 2017) “Chemistry Department Christmas Lecture” is a December tradition from the UW Chemistry Department’s Dr. Basam Shakhashiri that brings curious families to campus to experience colorful, (sometimes) loud, and always interesting chemistry experiments. Bucky Badger always visits and assists with an experiment or two. Santa also visits and there is also usually a musical guest as part of the show. Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri is recorded for later broadcast on local PBS stations. Tickets to the event are free, but sell out very quickly and MUST be requested by mail each year. Check the website for more details on how and when to request tickets.
The UW Space Place hosts Science Saturday outreach workshops for kids ages 6-10 with parental supervision on most Saturdays at 10 a.m. during the academic year. The Space Place also hosts guest speakers mostly more relevant to high school students and adults throughout the year. Periodically throughout the year the Space Place hosts Party with the Stars that starts with an indoor program about what is currently in the night sky and then moves to outdoor viewing of the night sky (weather permitting) with telescopes.
During the school year, a monthly program is offered at the MMSD Planetarium housed inside of Memorial High School. The projector can simulate day and night skies so audiences can explore objects that light up the sky. The monthly shows are low cost and family friendly. The Planetarium also offers special events each year: laser shows around Halloween Time and Valentine’s Day Shows (via MSCR). The MMSD Palentarium just underwent a major December 2017 renovation! The 1960s projector was replaced with a state-of-the art projecter to allow for a greater authenticity to the projected sky in the planetarium. Shows sell out quickly, so plan ahead and get your tickets well in advance of each monthly show. In addition to planetarium shows, the MMSD Planetarium loans out telescopes for local residents to explore the night sky on their own.
The Arboretum is a great place for exploration of natural habitats and ecosystems along with a great place to observe plantings of trees, shrubs, and other plants for research purposes. The Arboretum offers miles of hiking trails and it is a frequently used spot by runners and bikers. Family hikes and activities are offered twice monthly on Sunday afternoons. The Arboretum also hosts Earth Focus Day Camp during some summer weeks. My son loves exploring at the Arboretum. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the resident turkeys and other wildlife that mak the Arboretum their home.
The Astronomy Department at UW Madison offers public viewings of the night sky at the Washburn Observatory on Observatory Drive on the UW-Madisn Campus at seasonably variable times during most 1st and 3rd Wednesdays of the month. Due to the unpredictable nature of weather, follow the Washburn Observatory Twitter Account on nights viewings are scheduled for schedule updates.
The Babcock Dairy Store holds a sweet advantage over all other science venues in Madison: ice cream! Babcock Hall houses a working dairy that produces ice cream, cheese, milk, and other dairy products as part of the UW Madison Food Science Program. Groups of 10 or more can schedule tours. Even if you are not on a scheduled tour, you can climb a few stairs (or take an elevator) to the Observation Deck to potentially see cheese or ice cream being made. The Babcock Hall Dairy Store offers ice cream (the mini is plenty of ice cream for me) and a menu of lunch and breakfast items. I may be partial to both Mint Chocolate Cookie and Chocolate Turtle ice cream flavors, and I remember that their lunch sandwiches usually feature a generous amount of Babcock Hall Dairy Chesse!
Both the D.C. Smith Greenhouse and Allen Centennial Gardens are part of UW Madison departments and are free and open to the public during University hours. They cooperate in the spring of each year to host UW Family Gardening Day (2018 information not yet available) to allow families to explore gardening in Wisconsin.
Exploration opportunities (both indoor and out) abound for kids and curious nature lovers at Aldo Leopold Nature Center. Aldo Leopold is a heralded son of Wisconsin. His spirit and curiousity is passed on through the multitude of programs offered to allow kids and adults to connect, understand, and enjoy nature. Aldo Leopold Nature Center offers field trips, teacher training programs, summer camps, and much more.
Older People Science Opportunities
To be honest, I have not had the chance yet to explore this museum as it is relatively new to the Madison science scene. I do know from others who have, that the content is geared toward an older crowd than other museums I’ve already written about above. There are interactive elements to some exhibits. The Wisconsin Science Museum is free and open to the public. Please always check their website prior to planning an excursion due to the fact their share their space with Madison College.
DIY Science is a hands-on laboratory experience for adults (18 years and older) who want to learn about cutting-edge research and get their hands (figuratively) wet trying out experiements.
Science on Tap offers sciences presentations on topics of interest to the public in an accessible (a pub or bar), non-lab, non-lecture hall atmosphere. Pull up a stool, get your brew, and engage.