Transforming spectators into scientists

Q?rius learning center at the Smithsonian tears down barriers with bare hands

looking into a microscope
A visitor looks through a microscope in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s new interactive learning center, Q?rius, which opened to the public on Dec. 12 in Washington, D.C. Photo: James Di Loreto, Smithsonian
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of frequent trips to the local science museum with my father.
I remember looking at images of Marie Curie holding a glass beaker, listening to the oceanic reverberations from a conch shell and marveling at the diorama of the early man building a fire. A trip to the museum really was an all-around excitation of the senses and curiosity. After these visits, I told friends that I would become a scientist when I grew up, and that’s exactly what I did.
Perhaps the foundation for the advancement of science and technology in a society is indeed set in childhood. Introducing science early on can cultivate children’s innate sense of wonder and inquisitiveness, and museums do a wonderful job at that. The experience, however, is often limited to that of a spectator, with placards reading “do not touch” appearing as often as the displays.
To foster a more interactive and real experience for young minds, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has gone a step further and introduced a unique learning center called Q?rius (pronounced “curious”). Located in the heart of the nation’s capital, Q?rius features pieces taken out of scientific labs, collection vaults and creative and hangout spaces, creating an enormous hub for students to learn firsthand key concepts from real staff scientists and experts.
Visitors explore the Natural History Museum’s new education center, Q?rius, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian

The microscopes

Upon entering, the first thing that jumps out at Q?rius is the abundance of professional-level microscopes.
The star is the DSX100, a free-angle, wide-zoom microscope introduced by Olympus in 2012 — the microscope I wish I had had while pursuing my Ph.D. Using this machine, students can study samples from all sides without ever having to move them or refocus the scope. The associated touch-screen interface makes microscopy child’s play! What’s even more remarkable is that the images from the sample can be stitched together to create an amazingly detailed three-dimensional, panoramic image.
And what is the most popular specimen viewed under this microscope?
“Of course, one’s own finger,” reports Matt, a geologist and a volunteer at Q?rius. Visitors, he says, “are blown away by what they see. The level that you can zoom in to be able to see the sweat and pores — I think it blows their mind that it’s all part of them.”
Other advanced microscopes at the learning center include:
  • • the BX63, equipped with optics for fluorescence and differential interference contrast illumination and an advanced digital camera;
  • • the BX53 for polarized light microscopy;
  • • several BX43 upright compound teaching microscopes with five viewing heads for simultaneous use by multiple people; and
  • • dozens of dissection and stereo scopes set up at each station.
Seeing as not all schools are as well equipped, Q?rius provides students the rare opportunity to handle an advanced microscope and systematically study various samples. Several enthusiastic volunteers and experts stand by and offer assistance and training.
photographing museum specimens
Museum visitors get up-close and personal with museum specimens in the National Museum of Natural History’s new education center, Q?rius, in Washington, D.C. Photo: James Di Loreto, Smithsonian

The collection vaults: Do touch!

Ever wondered what kinds of birds are capable of crashing a Boeing 747?
At Q?rius, you can deduce the answer to this question and many others using real samples, such as bone fragments, fossils and DNA evidence, with training and guidance from Smithsonian staff scientists. Q?rius provides access to more than 6,000 genuine natural history objects that have been taken out of their locked glass cases and made available to the visitors.
“You can take them out, look at them, touch them … it’s my favorite part,” says Yefim, a young Russian boy visiting with his grandmother.
Vital fossils, some as old as 485 million years, are ready for exploration by the pioneers of tomorrow.

The digital field book

Q?rius also is instilling the importance of keeping a good lab notebook, an indispensible skill in research, in these young scientists. Participants can create an online field book and add the details to all their activities and observations at Q?rius by scanning associated QR codes.
This field book can be accessed on the Web, and students can continue to update it as they engage in the ever-evolving activities on the Q?rius website, including live webcasts with paleobiologists and videos of scientists in action at the Arctic.
drawer full of museum specimens
Q?rius lets visitors come face-to-face with museum specimens and learn about the science behind the collections. Photo: James Di Loreto, Smithsonian

So, are you Q?rius?

In the first three weeks since its opening, Q?rius already had entertained about 12,000 visitors. A fun, interactive, learning center, Q?rius is a one-of-a-kind hub that is using the expertise of staff scientists, unlocking invaluable specimens, providing superior equipment and engaging anyone who is curious and inquisitive. When I was a child, the playground was my lab — where I would pretend rocks were fossils. So I can imagine the utter amazement that young children feel upon holding an actual fossil — a relic of millions of years past — made possible by Q?rius.
Sapeck AgrawalSapeck Agrawal ( recently earned her Ph.D. in molecular microbiology and immunology from the Johns Hopkins University.