A Dozen Science Destinations
You’ve already been to the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Natural History, probably more than once. Where do you take your little scientists to keep their fascination with nature and technology stoked without breaking the bank or boring yourself silly?
Read on to discover a dozen less well-known science- or technology-themed destinations in the Metro-D.C. area. Most of these are either free or inexpensive and are fun and engaging for all ages. They are all high in quality, solidly educational and far less crowded than the tourist attractions on the National Mall.
By Lee Phillips
The Arlington Planetarium
The only freestanding school planetarium in the area is home to a tremendous variety of shows and activities, from traditional star shows and lectures by leading scientists to popular movies and servings of ice cream made with liquid nitrogen. Many of the shows are aimed at the grade-school crowd, but there’s plenty for people of all ages. The planetarium presents programs every weekend during the school year; about three-fourths of these are run by the Arlington Public Schools, and one special weekend a month is organized by the Friends of the Planetarium. There is sure to be at least one event here every year to engage both children and their parents. A $25 family membership to the Friends comes with reduced admission and advance notice of events.
How to get there: Moderate walk from the Ballston and Virginia Square Metro Stations, and ample free parking (see the map on friendsoftheplanetarium.org)
Upcoming: March 20–22: “Science Fiction”; April 17–19: “Life!”
Price: From free to $7/person, depending on membership, age and event
NASA Goddard Visitors’ Center
This interactive museum of space and astronomy adjoins the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. It’s sure to be an exciting place for any aspiring astronaut or astronomer, from its courtyard full of sounding rockets and a series of educational displays to the interior, crowded with movie screens, hands-on teaching exhibits and genuine artifacts of the space program. At the end of a corridor lined with high-resolution, backlit reproductions of the Hubble Space Telescope images are the doors to the globe theater, which features a projection screen in the shape of a large sphere. A separate building houses a gift shop with NASA T-shirts and astronomy toys.
How to get there: A bit of a trek, about 20 minutes north of the beltway, with plenty of parking. Drive past the main Goddard entrance and follow the signs for the visitors’ center
Koshland Science Museum
A compact museum featuring mainly interactive, screen-based exhibits with an emphasis on climate, earth sciences and human nutrition and biology, this facility will appeal to older children with patient and inquisitive dispositions. Of wider appeal is the driving simulator, employing an immersive graphic display to demonstrate the dangers of texting while driving, as well as hands-on teaching sessions by the staff. There are a few puzzles and games and a cabinet containing a collection of varied and interesting science books. The best days to visit are Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m., when hands-on activities are offered. Around the corner is the unique National Academies Press bookstore.
How to get there: Close to two Metro stations, Gallery Place-Chinatown and Judiciary Square, and without its own parking makes Metro the obvious choice.
Price: $7 for adults, $4 for students and active-duty military
Claude Moore Colonial Farm
This replica of an 18th-century farm is the only privately run park in the National Park Service. We recommend visiting during one of the special events or fairs, as there can be little to see at other times, especially in the colder months. A visit during the Market Fair, for example, provides a fascinating, hands-on experience of colonial-era agricultural and household technology and is sure to appeal to children who like animals, history and making their own candles.
How to get there: Smack up against the CIA in McLean with its own parking lot, so a car is your best bet
Upcoming: “Hibernates” from mid-December to April 1
Price: Adults $3, children and seniors $2, more for the (highly recommended) Market Fair; free for members and National Park Service pass holders
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
This is the other Air & Space Museum, an enormous space containing objects too large for its sibling on the Mall including an entire space shuttle and the stunning SR-71 Blackbird. The Udvar-Hazy Center also serves to display more of the Smithsonian’s vast collection of space and aeronautic artifacts. If your family can’t get enough of the original Air & Space Museum, this trip is a no-brainer. The best day to visit is on their annual Air & Scare day, shortly before Halloween, when they fill the corridors with live demonstrations and activities. Many of the visitors come in costume, and the staff gets thoroughly into the spirit of the season.
How to get there: Almost all the way to Dulles Airport; enter from Route 28 (Sully Road)
Upcoming: March 14: “Women in Aviation and Space”; March 21: “Kites of Asia”
Price: Free with a $15 parking fee
National Museum of Health and Medicine
There is plenty here to fascinate people of any age as long as they have some interest in medical science or technology, but the squeamish should probably stay away. If, however, you and your children can handle human remains floating in jars, this museum can provide an educational opportunity found nowhere else. There is a bounty here for Civil War buffs as well, with artifacts such as the bullet removed from Lincoln’s brain. Steeped in a tradition of military medicine, the NMHM is run by the Department of Defense. There is an unusual security requirement, in addition to the customary bag check: “Adult visitors may be asked to present a photo ID at the front desk of the museum.”
How to get there: The closest Metro station is Forest Glen, one mile away. Otherwise, it’s a short drive to Silver Spring, and parking is free
Of NoVA’s many excellent nature centers, Riverbend Park is distinguished by its high-quality programs, festivals and hiking trails, as well as its location alongside the Potomac. Any grade- or middle-schooler who enjoys nature, animals and walking in the woods will have fun here. Try to plan your visit during one of their special events for close encounters with snakes, birds and other critters, but Riverbend has something to offer any day with its indoor educational exhibits, small but unusual gift shop and natural beauty.
How to get there: Just outside the Beltway in Great Falls, drive and enjoy the ample free parking
Upcoming: March 8 & 15: “Wagon Ride to Poohsticks Bridge;” March 22: “Wagon Ride—Birds, Butterflies & Blossoms”
Price: No charge except for some special programs
National Firearms Museum
A major impetus for the advancement of science is the necessity to posses superior armaments. This world-class collection of firearms contains hundreds of examples of the development of metallurgy, mechanics and chemistry combined with exquisite craftsmanship. The inclusion of weapons associated with famous people and guns seen in movies means there is something to interest just about anyone without a strong aversion to pistols or rifles.
How to get there: Right off Route 66, 20 minutes west of the Beltway free parking.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
It’s hard to believe that this system of ponds and marshes exists within the District city limits, but it’s not a mirage. Visitors may encounter muskrat, mink, turtles and a large variety of birds. Mornings in the spring are excellent for viewing wildflowers. Kenilworth is a great place to take a child who likes natural environments and birdwatching, but it may not be an ideal destination for toddlers because the experience involves walks on sometimes-precarious boardwalks suspended above water or mud. The park has an interesting bookstore/gift shop, both in person and online.
How to get there: Drive and use the free parking, or take the Orange or Silver lines to the Deanwood Metro Station
National Cryptologic Museum
Operated by the NSA, the National Cryptologic Museum contains an extensive and unique collection of artifacts from the nation’s cryptologic history. This first and only intelligence community’s public museum features items from 18th-century cipher machines to Cray supercomputers. It’s a choice destination for historians, scholars and anyone interested in American and geopolitical history or the technology of codes and cryptography. Very young children may find their patience challenged, but most others, especially those with an interest in the intelligence world, will find something to fascinate them. There is an adjunct reference library for scholars of cryptography as well as a unique gift shop. Next to the museum is the National Vigilance Park with two reconnaissance aircraft used for secret missions on display.
How to get there: The museum is half way to Baltimore, and driving is the only option; parking is free
Price: No charge for admission
Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium
Among the many superb nature centers in the Metro-D.C. area, the Rock Creek Park Nature Center is unique for two reasons. It serves as the visitors center for Rock Creek Park, one of our area’s greatest natural resources, and it contains the only planetarium in the National Park system. The Nature Center features a children’s discovery room, turtles, fish, snakes, a working beehive and plenty more. The integral planetarium has a regular schedule of astronomy presentations led by a park ranger. In addition, there is a monthly outdoor telescope observation session. For young people with interests in the terrestrial natural world as well as the wonders of nature elsewhere in the universe, this destination has all the bases covered.
How to get there: Convenient by car from the District or NoVA, with free parking; about two miles from the Friendship Heights Metro Station
Price: Free admission to the park and all programs, including the planetarium, except for horseback tours
National Building Museum
This museum houses an extensive collection in the general area around the intersection of engineering, materials science and architecture. It aims to educate the public about the importance of buildings in our daily lives. The Building Museum caters to visitors of all ages, from the Building Zone, a hands-on architectural experience for children aged 2 to 6, to a lecture series for adults, and it provides a deep look at American history. The large museum shop can be an excellent source for creative gifts.
How to get there: Close to the National Mall, get off at the Judiciary Square or Gallery Place Metro Stations
Upcoming: March 14: “Scaling Washington,” featuring images of the post-earthquake restoration of the Washington Monument and National Cathedral; April 8: Homeschool Day
Price: $8 for adults, $5 for seniors (60+), children (3–17) and students, free for members and babies (2 and under)