4 Smart Cities to Plan a STEM-Themed Vacation

4 Smart Cities to Plan a STEM-Themed Vacation

When planning a family vacation, you probably cover all of the usual bases: local food, art, history and culture. But science, technology, engineering and math – the four disciplines collectively known as “STEM” – are ripe for exploration on your next trip, too. STEM-themed vacations can excite your kids about topics like coding, medicine and outer space while exposing them to new interests or future career paths. Discover rocket ship solutions in Houston and Henry Ford’s original Model T outside Detroit. While in Boston, get ready to dive into the world of robotics at MIT, or see the monumental effort that goes into giving Boeing aircraft their wings in Seattle. From microcomputers to larger-than-life brains, these four cities offer plenty to spark the imagination of students young and old.

Seattle

As you fly into Washington state, take note of your plane’s model number. If it begins with a 7, it was probably made by Boeing, one of the world’s largest aircraft producers. See where Boeing’s birds get their wings at the Future of Flight Aviation Center, just a 25-mile drive north of Seattle. During the 90-minute tour, discover the fascinating field of flight as you watch 747s, 777s and 787 Dreamliners get assembled inside the largest building (by volume) in the world. For a hands-on experience, create and print 3-D models in a collaborative, open workspace during Maker Mondays. Want more? Sign up for one of Boeing’s Family Weekend Workshops for a deeper dive into the science and evolution of flight.

Next up? The Pacific Science Center in downtown Seattle, where you can catch the latest IMAX show as well as planetarium and live science shows. Families can plan ahead and use the center’s scripted demonstrations to make their way through scientific discoveries, like how volcanoes are formed. Once back in the car, hand out the center’s PacSci-Doku puzzle to complete en route to your next stop. The sudoku-style game poses a question about the center’s current IMAX show and is solved by using letters in place of numbers.

Pacific Science Center: Educational Family Vacations Step into the footprint of the massive duckbill dinosaur as you venture back to the Mesozoic era at the Pacific Science Center’s “Dinosaurs: A Journey Through Time” exhibit. Photo by Ryan Somma, Flickr

Later, geek out at what’s arguably the world’s coolest — and certainly the largest — collection of fully restored and usable microcomputers, minicomputers, mainframes and supercomputers at the Living Computers Museum + Labs, in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood. Park for free in the museum’s north lot and head inside to learn about robotics, self-driving cars, video game making, virtual reality and other technologies. Bonus: Drive about 90 miles north of SoDo via Interstate 5 to learn about the history of electricity and its use and development in radio and more at the SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention in Bellingham, Washington.

Detroit

Driving and Detroit go hand in hand — the city’s nickname is Motor City, after all, because of its influence in establishing America’s automobile industry. After picking up your rental car, make your first stop The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. Located on your way from the airport to downtown, this 80-acre indoor and outdoor complex grew out of Henry Ford’s personal collection of artifacts and inventions associated with American life. Discover exhibits, historical items and activities laying out how the U.S. transformed from a rural to an industrial society. Hop on a real Model T, and explore historic structures where scientific, transportation, communication, agricultural and literary innovations occurred — from the lab where Thomas Edison’s lightbulb got its spark to the bike shop where the Wright brothers constructed their first airplane.

Henry Ford Museum: Educational Tourism Walk through a myriad of relics — from early telephone models and railway streetcars to vehicles used to transport 20th-century U.S. presidents — at The Henry Ford. Photo by David Wilson, Flickr.

Dive deeper into the technology and engineering involved in creating and evolving automobiles at the Ford Rouge Factory. Walk to the front of the museum to catch the free, 15-minute shuttle that regularly transports visitors to and from the factory. Inside, experience a 360-degree view of how automobiles are made; watch films about the factory’s history; and witness the real-time assembly of Ford F-150 pickups. Visitors can also scope out the world’s biggest “living roof” — an energy-efficient ecosystem of plants atop the assembly building — from an 80-foot observation deck.

Buckle up and drive 2 miles north of downtown to the Michigan Science Center. Let your future engineers, astronauts and scientists work in the U.S. Fun Steel Factory; innovate inside the center’s Smithsonian Spark!Lab; and play, build and experiment with the science behind everyday things — like using angles with a boat’s sail — on the STEM playground. For your youngest travelers, head to Kids Town, the center’s child-sized town built to help 2- to 5-year-olds understand fundamental science concepts.

Boston

The capital of Massachusetts may best be known for its history, but as home to dozens of universities and colleges and a growing biotech industry, science and education are equally big in Boston. Drive across the Charles River and onto the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s campus in Cambridge, just 3 miles west of downtown. While you can certainly tour the prestigious institute, the MIT Museum is a must-stop for STEM-cation seekers. Venture through the history of artificial intelligence and view research prototypes, kinetic sculptures and high-tech objects. Bonus: If your crew is all in the sixth grade and older, request to participate in an interactive science, technology and engineering educational workshop (on topics such as robotics and building better bridges) taught by educators from the institute and its museum.

Robot at MIT Museum: Kids STEM Activities Venture into the world of robotics, artificial intelligence and a wide variety of thought-provoking research at the MIT Museum. Photo by Angela N., Flickr.

When you get back in your car, follow the Charles River east less than 3 miles via Memorial Drive to the Museum of Science. With permanent exhibits in mathematics, nanotechnology and transportation as well as engaging drop-in activities, this museum is filled with educational opportunities disguised as pure fun. Choose between two Thrill Ride 360° simulated experience films: Hop in the pilot’s seat and fly over Boston’s famous landmarks, or drop more than 100 feet as you twist and turn through tunnels at top speeds on a virtual roller coaster ride. Afterward, step into an engineer’s shoes as you build technologies (like a miniature boat or trampoline) while participating in the museum’s design challenges.

End your trip with a STEM-themed treat by driving about 100 miles north to Funspot. Located in Laconia, New Hampshire, Funspot is not only the world record-holder for the largest arcade, but it’s also home to the American Classic Arcade Museum. While you reminisce playing the games you grew up with, your kids can get a glimpse into how much gaming has changed.

Houston

Land in Houston and launch your trip with a visit to the Space Center Houston. Feel the Lunar Touchstone, one of only eight lunar rocks in the world that can be touched. Then see the lithium hydroxide canister that NASA engineers constructed under immense pressure to ensure the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew; hear updates from the International Space Station; and even eat lunch with an astronaut in NASA’s center for spacecraft.

Space Center: Educational Travel Destinations At the Space Center Houston, bring your vacation into a whole new world, or worlds, as you discover what’s beyond this one while learning about the incredible science, technology, engineering and math feats that make journeying into outer space possible. Photo by SnippyHolloW, Flickr.

Another adventure awaits 3 miles south of downtown at the Children’s Museum of Houston. Encourage kiddos to protect the virtual universe with their math and critical-thinking skills in the CyberChase exhibit; write code to solve puzzles; and program robots in the museum’s Coding Hangout. At the museum’s solar-powered EcoStation, investigate environmental issues through such activities as leaf rubbing and insect collecting. If your family is interested in natural science, visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where you’ll stare upon ancient Egyptian artifacts while learning about evolution in archeology and discover the basics of chemistry. Tip: The Houston CityPass offers up to 48 percent off admission to some of Houston’s top sights, including these two museums and the Space Center.

Less than a 4-mile drive south of downtown, step into the world of human anatomy and medicine at The Health Museum. Get ready to explore one of the body’s most amazing organs as you walk inside a 10-foot-tall brain, which will challenge all who enter with mind and memory games. Next, throw on white lab coats and get intimate with cellular biology as you progress through the DeBakey Cell Lab’s seven stations. While enjoying this hands-on experience in the lab, your sons and daughters will also get a preview of what it’s like to work in medicine and research.

About the Author

Lisa Zimmermann is a Washington, D.C.-based writer with an M.A. in communication, culture and technology. She’s previously written for Boston magazine, Boston Home, Boston Weddings, The Dallas Morning News, The Jersey Journal, New England Travel and Atlas Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @lisazimm or Instagram @lzloveslife.