Best Science Centers in the United States

Families in metro Detroit have several options when it comes to engaging museums and science centers right in our own backyards. But if your budding scientist wants more, you might consider a trip beyond our state borders.

In 2013, the American MENSA — an organization of people who have scored in the top two percent of the general population on an IQ test — compiled a list of 30 of the best science museums in America based on reputation and patronage. Then they asked a group of Mensan educators and scientists to choose the 10 best science centers in the USA. According to American MENSA, the list was a one-time ranking but the topic may be revisited in the future.

Here, we’ll list those top 10 along with a brief description of each and how you can learn more. If you’re planning a trip, be sure to check any current museum memberships you have to find out if they have reciprocal agreements with the centers you have in mind.

Note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some museums and science centers may be temporarily closed and some activities may be canceled. Those that are open may enforce face mask and social distancing measures. Check before you head out. 

1. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum

The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC is the largest of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and its Center for Earth and Planetary studies is one of the institution’s nine research centers. Here you’ll find Saturn V rockets, jetliners, space helmets, microchips and more. Admission to all Smithsonian Institution Museums is free however fees apply for IMAX films, planetarium shows, simulators and some special programs. A story time program is offered where museum staff and volunteers tell stories about famous aviators, hot-air balloon flights, trips to Mars and more.

2. Academy of Natural Science Museum of Drexel University

Founded in 1812, this academy of natural sciences is a leading natural history museum dedicated to advancing research, education, and public engagement in biodiversity and environmental science. Visitors here can see towering dinosaurs, meet live animals and explore a tropical garden filled with live butterflies. The museum offers fun for all ages including rotating interactive science exhibits, a children’s discovery center, fossil dig and opportunities to interact with science experts.

3. Museum of Science and Industry

As the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, the Museum of Science and Industry is home to more than 35,000 artifacts and more than 400,000 square feet of hands-on experiences. Its mission is to inspire the inventive genius in everyone. Popular exhibits include Science Storms, which reveals the science behind some of nature’s most powerful phenomena, and YOU! The Experience, an exhibit that lets you explore what it means to live a healthy life in the 21st century.

4. California Academy of Sciences

All under one roof you’ll find an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, rainforest, 40,000 live animals and more. The California Academy of Sciences is among the largest museums of natural history in the world, housing more than 26 million specimens. Rebuilt in 2008, the building covers 400,000 square feet and is among the newest natural history museums in the U.S. Hands-on exhibits include a Naturalist Center, Early Explorers Cove and Discovery Tidepool.

5. Bradbury Science Museum

At the Bradbury Science Museum, part of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, about 60 interactive exhibits trace the history of the WWII Manhattan Project, highlight the laboratory’s current and historic research projects related to defense and technology and focus on laboratory research related to national and international economic, environmental, political and social concerns.

6. Arkansas Museum of Discovery

This museum has a mission to ignite a passion for science, technology and math in a dynamic, interactive environment. They achieve that through features like the Discovery Hall where visitors learn about force and energy, an Earth Journeys exhibit that explores the geographic features that make Arkansas unique, and a Room to Grow area for children ages 6 and younger to take part in hands-on learning.

7. California Science Center

This center aims to stimulate curiosity and inspire science learning in everyone by creating fun, memorable experiences. The California Science Center offers free admission to its permanent galleries and spans more than 400,000 square feet. Highlights include its Ecosystems, Air & Space and Discovery Room exhibits.

8. Exploratorium

The Exploratorium is a museum of science, art and human perception offering tools and experiences to help visitors become active explorers. The museum features hundreds of indoor and outdoor exhibits, film screenings, workshops for all ages and more.

9. Museum of Science

The Museum of Science is one of the world’s largest science centers and Boston’s most attended cultural institution. About 1.5 million people visit the museum each year for exhibits like the 10,000-square-foot Hall of Human Life, which draws on the latest discoveries in the life sciences to engage visitors in their own biology and health.

10. Center of Science and Industry (COSI)

COSI aims to inspire the “scientists, dreamers and innovators of tomorrow.” Its 320,000-square-foot home is one of the largest modern-built science centers in the country and features more than 300 interactive experiences. It is also home to WOSU@COSI, the only working television station in a science center. Since 1964, COSI has engaged with more than 30 million people at the center and through its outreach programs.

This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly. 

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