Living Computers Museum: A One-of-a-Kind Place to Explore Computer Tech

 

Photo: Lauren Bayer

 

Explore robotics, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, video-game making, and more at Living Computers Museum + Labs

 

Imagine you’re in a huge indoor playground  – and it’s packed with robots you can build, a self-driving car you can sit in, digital art you can create, and new worlds you can explore through virtual reality. Then – upstairs in the attic – there are dozens of computers from the last 50 years that you can actually touch and play with.

People show your kids how to program and communicate with robots, create their own video games, hack computers and even soldering hardware. Children and teens can explore areas of technology without you having to make a huge monetary or time commitment. And if they find an area of interest, they can pursue it further than most schools’ resources would allow and drop in to get expert help on their projects.

While it seems like a dream, such is the vision of the Living Computers Museum + Labs in Seattle – a newly expanded computer tech playground for everyone from preschoolers to adults. As a museum, it’s all designed to be “hands-on and playable, but with an educational component,” summarizes Marketing Coordinator Lauren Bayer. As a lab, it’s a place you can visit often to learn all kinds of skills and to use as an ongoing resource to take your tinkering to the next level.

For example, Education Coordinator Nina Arens pointed to an 11-year-old boy who recently brought in his homemade robot during an Office Hours session (3-5 p.m. every Thursday) so that staff could help him program his creation to do the task he couldn’t figure out how to do on his own at home. “We see this happen all the time,” says Arens. “Parents see their kids are interested in computer science but don’t know enough about it themselves to help their kids take the next steps. That’s where we come in.”

Even though we live in such a high-tech city, most people would be surprised to learn that just 40% of Seattle’s schools provide computer science curriculum. Through field trips programs, partnerships with local schools, and teacher training sessions, Living Computers is working to bridge this gap by providing kids with real access to computers and technology, Arens says. Whether it’s introducing preschoolers to the basics of coding or helping teens who find that school computer programs only go so far – kids use the museum and labs to take their interests to the next level.

Labs can be simple for little ones too. On a recent visit, kids drew paths through a map of the museum with colored markers, and a little round robot changed colors as it traveled over the different colored lines. It was an introduction to the idea that robots “read” different kinds of languages. Next door, high schoolers were building a high-tech train station using Micro-bit.

“There are a lot of different options in the workshops, from software to hardware to mechanical engineering,” Arens summarizes. “We even let 8- and 9-year-olds do soldering.”

A hands-on lab session is standard with all field trips. A wide array of workshops – from wiring a doll-sized smart home or coding a retro video game to building a little bot out of household items or creating circuits using breadboards – are offered throughout the summer. They’ve also recently introduced cart demos that circulate through the museum to let kids play with different components and see them in action. Movie nights and overnight hack-a-thons round out the schedule.

Beyond education, the museum also stands out as a place where parents and kids can bond over experiencing new (and old) technology. It’s common to see parents show their kids how the older computers work and for the kids to be thrilled to try them out. From playing Atari together in a classic 70s-style living room setup to trying out Minecraft mods in the Gamemakers space, there are countless opportunities that span the generational divide.

The location of the museum – just south of downtown –  also allows it to be a space not just for those with the means pay admission but to lower-income and underserved residents as well. Living Computers created their Access program specifically to serve these people in their community. Under the program, families receiving any kind of government assistance can visit for $1 per person or buy a family membership for just $10. Workshops are cheaper for members, who get first dibs on available spots, but scholarships are available so that no child is turned away.

“At the end of the day, our main goal is to be a resource for the public,” says Bayer. “ Like a library or an open studio, we want people to use our space regularly to learn something new, develop their projects, or find a community around their interests.”

 

IF YOU GO

Where: 2245 First Ave. S., Seattle, between Safeco Field and Starbucks headquarters.

When: Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; first Thursday of the month, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Amenities: Free parking; big “brown bag” space with tables; basic coffee bar, but no food service; restrooms; tech store & gift shop.

Cost: Adults, $12; children, students, veterans and seniors, $10; children 5 and younger, free; families receiving government assistance, $1 per person; first Thursdays, 5 to 8 p.m., free. Memberships are $40 per person, $60 per family, $10 for families receiving government assistance, and include free admission to The Flying Heritage Collection in Everett and $5 off MoPop admission.

Events: Check the online calendar for workshops, talks, movies and other events

Contact: 206-342-2020; www.livingcomputers.org

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