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Remembering a Great Science Educator

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Seventeen years ago, Phil Yam, then news editor (now managing editor, online), was looking for a rent-a-kid to test out the newly opening physics playground at the New York Hall of Science. He tapped me to write a story and recruit my ten-year-old son Benjamin as test animal.

Accompanying us on the trip from Manhattan to the multi-ethnic enclave in Corona, Queens that abuts  the 1964 World’s Fair grounds where the museum is located, was Benjamin’s close friend Geoffrey Hamilton. Both gladly assented to come because they got to play hookey from fifth grade.

At what the museum called hyperbolically the “largest science playground in the Western Hemisphere,” we met the bearded, avuncular Alan J. Friedman, the museum’s director, who died earlier this month at the age of 71.
Friedman, who spearheaded development of the $3.1 million playground, delighted in showing us how climbing structures and the like could be used to illustrate the principles of physics. At one point, he tapped a large gong softly in several places to show how resonance works—the volume gradually rising to a level that was louder than if it had just received a single thump.

Friedman, who had recently won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s award for public understanding of science and technology, also took us to another area to demonstrate the difference between a standing and a traveling wave.

A force behind reviving the museum, Friedman worked to put in place attracted $100 million in funding  to expand the institution. Both Benjamin and Geoffrey gave a thumbs up at the time to Friedman’s efforts at crossing science pedagogy with jungle gyms, comparing favorably the afternoon spent near La Guardia airport and the U.S. Open stadium to his experience of science class at school. “The first two or three months, the only thing we worked on was measuring and classifying string beans,” Benjamin told me at the time.

Source for Images: New York Hall of Science

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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