Balancing act

San Francisco's Exploratorium museum has unveiled a new interactive exhibit that shows kids the science behind the sport

The mile or so of absurdly picturesque waterfront separating San Francisco's Ferry Building from Fisherman's Wharf suffers no shortage of various and sundry diversions: arresting views of the Bay Bridge and Alcatraz Island floating in the blue-green bay; the Ferry Building itself brimming with upscale shops and restaurants; a new luxury cruise-ship terminal, currently being erected, from which passengers headed north to Alaska, or south to San Diego and Mexico, will be able to embark.

But arguably the most intriguingly idiosyncratic amusement is currently stationed in front of Pier 17.

It resembles a kind of hut, or module, and appears to be largely made of skateboard decks. Though the structure is stationary, closer inspection reveals that the decks are mounted on a flatbed trailer, parked with little explanation in the middle of this pedestrian-packed, palm-tree-lined thoroughfare. A colorful mural covering the some 400 boards lends this modest edifice an effervescent air, but gives no clear indication as to its ultimate purpose.

Just the other afternoon a guy and a girl who looked to be in their late teens or early 20s entered the enigmatic sanctuary, uncertainly clutching their own skateboards as tourists streamed past.

"What is it?" asked the girl.

"It's a skateboard truck," replied the guy.

Though she seemed somewhat satisfied with her compatriot's not-wholly-inaccurate explanation, one certainly could have expanded upon his answer.

A museum of science, perception and skateboarding

The so-called "skateboard truck" is in fact only the latest example of the Exploratorium museum's vigorous effort to unite science and skateboards.

Courtesy Exploratorium

The "skateboarding science trailer parklet" was assembled and decorated by James Lick Middle School students, seen here.

The pioneering "participatory" science museum recently, and with much fanfare, relocated from the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina to a state-of-the-art, centrally located nine-acre facility at Piers 15 and 17. Although its new digs are significantly snazzier, the museum has long fostered a playful, slightly eccentric, D.I.Y. pedagogical culture.

Many educational institutions describe themselves as "hands-on" learning environments. But in the case of the Exploratorium, the claim is quite literal: Most of its highly interactive exhibits are conceived and constructed on site. Many a native San Franciscan can recall the childhood trauma of witnessing one of the museum's remarkable "cow-eye dissections." To this day, one of the Exploratorium's most enduring attractions, built in 1971, is the "tactile dome" -- a kind of treacherous obstacle course visitors stumble through in total darkness.

Given the institution's mildly countercultural inflections and iconoclastic streak, it's perhaps no surprise that a number of its longtime employees are skateboarding aficionados who've helped ensure that the museum produces a steady stream of skate-related educational content.

Some highlights of the museum's skateboard programming over the years include an early exhibit and demo in 1999 about the physics of skateboarding, which earned an article in skateboard bible Thrasher magazine. In 2011 the television program "Built to Shred," in an episode titled "Weird Science," erected several ramps and obstacles inside the museum, giving skaters a chance to cruise among the exhibits. Skateboard pros as renowned as Dennis Busenitz, Tony Trujillo, Peter Ramondetta and Elissa Steamer have starred in the museum's physics demos.

Exhibit about skateboarding, ready to roll

On the scorching Friday afternoon this reporter paid a visit to the quirky installation -- described by the Exploratorium as "skateboard science trailer parklet" -- several students from James Lick Middle School were on hand to evaluate what is, in part, their own creation: A few weeks earlier, the trailer had been brought to the school's Noe Valley campus to be decorated and assembled by members of its five-day-a-week after-school skateboarding club, sponsored by the Mission District-based nonprofit Jamestown, a partner in the parklet project.

Eric Dimond, an Exploratorium exhibit developer and the trailer's designer, stood under the shade of the skateboard decks, encouraging the middle-schoolers to actively assess the exhibits -- "Particle Accelerator," "Bearings," "Turning Trucks," "Wheel Hardness" and "How to Ollie," among others. With particular vigor, one student was giving the "How to Ollie" exhibit, featuring a skateboard chained to the floor, a solid thrashing. A videographer from a local ABC affiliate trained her camera on the spirited, if stationary, skater.

"They just took over the parklet as soon as they saw it!" said Dina Herring, the Exploratorium's senior multimedia specialist, watching the scene unfold delightedly. "I am so excited to have all the outdoor space."

As for the feedback Dimond dutifully recorded on a clipboard, some of the students wanted the parklet's wheels to look more like a "low rider." Others suggested that the museum install chairs made of skateboards inside the parklet.

Courtesy Exploratorium

James Lick students, all of whom are enrolled in an after-school skateboarding class through the Jamestown nonprofit organization, relax after evaluating the parklet, comprised of 400 skateboard decks.

"All these kids are really into skateboarding, but they don't know all the intricacies, the engineering and mathematics, that go along with the thing they love to do," Dimond explained. "If we bring up these concepts like durometer, or friction, or momentum, those are, like, school terms. But if we can associate those things with something that they love, they're more engaged with it. And instead of having labels given to them, they're engaging with real skateboard wheels, real skateboard decks and having a physical experience. It's not like this is a simulated skateboard, or an electronic skateboard."

"I think the parklet fits into several traditions of informal education," Dimond, who skates to work, added. "We are talking about real engineering and mathematics. An ollie has some real interesting physics around it. We thought this was the perfect opportunity to get kids from 8 to 18 excited around STEM content." [STEM is an acronym for "science, technology, engineering and mathematics." -- Ed.]

The middle-school students' skateboard instructor, Noah McManus, 23, originally of Massachusetts, was chaperoning his young charges.

"It's a surprise to everyone back East that I teach skateboarding," he said. "They try and figure it out, like, 'What do you do?'" (James Lick Middle School, incidentally, is home to the Clipper Street ledge, one of the most documented skateboard spots in the sport's history -- a fact that McManus has integrated into his lesson plans.)

Steve Gennrich, an exhibit developer and one of the Exploratorium's more accomplished skaters, could not have been more pleased to see the parklet finally put to its intended use.

"The exhibits are like evolving prototypes," Gennrich said, sounding themes that run through the Exploratorium's history. "That's one of the things that differentiates us from other museums. Other museums will just put it out there and if it breaks, they'll fix it. They won't modify it."

"We talk about informal education as something really specific, as something that goes on outside of a classroom, a formal learning environment," he continued. "It draws on a lot of parallels to skateboarding. The best exhibits appeal to somebody's curiosity and wonderment, and I think the best exhibits are open to experiments. They're not like your high school physics teacher telling you E=mc2 or something like that. It's not so much telling you, but encouraging you to figure it out for yourself. Sort of like how skateboarding is. It's a landscape that you have to figure out how to make fun."

Postscript: All is fair in love and science and skateboarding

No story about a museum's efforts to use skateboarding to educate "the youth" about science would be complete without hearing directly from said youth. So, as a natural coda for our narrative, I engaged James Lick students in a series of compelling interviews.

I politely nodded at one of the students in a way that was meant to suggest that as an urbane (skateboard) journalist I knew little -- okay, nothing -- about physics, but I knew people who knew people who knew people who have briefly met Lil Wayne.

Here is a true and accurate transcript of the first interview. Notice how, despite a marked difference in age and experience, this reporter was skillfully able to draw the subject out, build rapport and open dialogue.

Reporter: "Is this your first time at the Exploratorium?"
Student: "Um, yeah."
Reporter: "Have you enjoyed the exhibit today?"
Student: "Yeah."
Reporter: "Is he your teacher? Is he a good skateboard teacher?"
Student: "Yes."
Reporter: "Is it fun learning to skateboard in school?"
Student: "Yeah."

It was clear that I had retained my touch, ya heard? Still, something was missing. I next spoke with a seventh-grader named Vincent Buchanan who, granted, was a bit more forthcoming.

"My favorite current skater is P-Rod," said Mr. Buchanan. "My favorite skater from back in the day has to be Mark Gonzales. I've searched up some old skate footage of him and it was sick."

He was equally enthusiastic about the parklet.

"Dude, I think it's sick," Buchanan said. "What I like about this thing, and the beauty of it, is this is going to show new people that know absolutely nothing about skateboarding a new perspective on things. It teaches them about how hard it is to do tricks."

"I helped build this," he added with evident pride. "Each and every one of us had a part."

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