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10 top science museums for fun and learning

X-Plane Gallery, Cosmosphere A replica of the Bell X-1 Rocket Plane appears ready to take off at the Cosmosphere, which is filled with space and flight artifacts. | Photo courtesy Cosmosphere, Hutchinson, KS,

Today’s science museums differ greatly from yesteryear’s, when displays were tightly enclosed in glass cases. “Look but don’t touch” guidelines have gone the way of dinosaurs, which now populate museums in roaring animatronic form. Visitors are encouraged to touch, explore, investigate, and interact with an ever-evolving array of high-tech exhibits

Designed to appeal to the whole family, these museums cover a wide range of interests—flights to outer space and the planets, weather, ecology, engineering, ancient fossils, and more. Perfect for visits any time of year, these learning adventures are particularly popular during summer, when school isn’t in session. Spark your curiosity at these 10 science museums that are as entertaining as they are educational.

Top science museums in the Midwest

Museum of Science and Industry


Boeing 727

Visitors can climb into a Boeing 727, one of many exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry. | Photo courtesy Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

The Palace of Fine Arts from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition became the Museum of Science and Industry in 1933, and recently it’s been on a roll—specifically with its huge transportation exhibits.

After a year of renovation, the Pioneer Zephyr Train has reopened. Nicknamed the Silver Streak, it flashed from Denver to Chicago on a 1934 run in just over 13 hours. Explore this sleek speedster, which looks fast standing still, at your own pace. “Flying” over the museum’s main hall is a 1964 Boeing 727 airliner, an integral part of an expanded exhibit that explores the science of flying. A replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer appears ready for takeoff nearby, and guests can climb into motion and flight simulators.

Among the 400,000 square feet of exhibits and experiences, you can see a German U-505 submarine, captured in 1944, and tour its cramped quarters when conditions allow.

Science City at Union Station

Kansas City, Missouri

 Science City at Union Station

Young scientists enjoy a range of fun and fascinating hands-on experiences at Science City at Union Station. | Photo courtesy Union Station Kansas City

Dating to 1914, Kansas City’s Union Station was once a major train hub, but now guests can embark on scientific adventures at Science City at Union Station. With a nod to its history, the All Aboard themed area invites young visitors to play with toy trains. Youngsters can watch a toy train chug around a Kansas City layout and crawl through a tunnel in the display to a secret porthole.

In the outdoor Simple Machines at Play exhibit, guests climb, lift, and slide using levers, pulleys, and other mechanical devices. Plus, they can pedal 30 feet in the air on the Sky Bike ride and scan the sky at Arvin Gottlieb Planetarium, which charges a separate admission fee. Budding young scientists will enjoy other exhibits about genetics, water, energy, and more.

Saint Louis Science Center

St. Louis

Saint Louis Science Center

Engaging presentations are among the 700 interactive experiences at Saint Louis Science Center. | Photo courtesy Saint Louis Science Center

With a mission to ignite lifelong learning, the Saint Louis Science Center draws inquisitive visitors not only with its 700 interactive experiences but with its free admission. The indoor/outdoor GROW gallery shows the farm-to-plate food journey, and GameXploration features board, video, and virtual games that teach problem-solving skills.

Watch fun science topics come to life on the Energy Stage; dig up fossils in the Ecology and Environment area not far from a life-like Tyrannosaurus rex; and explore engineering in the Structures Gallery, where you can build a Gateway Arch replica using foam blocks. Fees, however, are charged at the five-story OMNIMAX Theater and at the James S. McDonnell Planetarium, connected via an enclosed pedestrian bridge over Interstate 64.

Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Indianapolis, Indiana

Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

In addition to indoor science exhibits, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis provides outdoor sports and fitness activities. | Photo courtesy the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

You know you’ve reached the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis when you see a 50-foot-tall Brachiosaurus appearing to climb up the building. Exhibits in a host of galleries range from dinosaurs to a world of miniatures in the recently reimagined Mini Masterpieces gallery.

In the International Space Station exhibit, guests immerse themselves in astronauts’ lives, and they can explore the stars in the Schaefer Planetarium and Space Object Theater. Visitors also can gaze up at a stunning 43-foot tower of glass by Dale Chihuly. The 7.5-acre Riley Children’s Health Sports Legends Experience draws visitors outside seasonally to enjoy activities involving soccer, hockey, basketball, and more. Return in spring 2022 to see the Dinosphere exhibit, which is undergoing a massive renovation.

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Hutchinson, Kansas

apollo 13 capsule

The Apollo 13 command module dominates Cosmosphere’s Apollo Gallery, which celebrates America’s presence on the moon. | Photo courtesy Cosmosphere, Hutchinson, KS,

Winners and losers in the space race have landed at Cosmosphere in central Kansas. Its 13,000 artifacts include a full-size replica of the Space Shuttle Endeavour and a replica of the Bell X-1 Rocket Plane in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. Mercury Redstone and Gemini Titan II rockets point skyward outside the museum.

Galleries devoted to early spaceflight and the Apollo space program include space suits, Russian Sputnik and Vostok spacecraft, and the command module of the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission. Future astronauts can visit CosmoKids interactive play area to build a Mars habitat, and all can enjoy out-of-this-world shows in the Carey Digital Dome Theater and Justice Planetarium.

Top science museums in the South

Infinity Science Center

Pearlington, Mississippi

infinity science center

Infinity Science Center takes guests on a journey from the depths of the oceans to the far reaches of outer space. | Photo courtesy Infinity Science Center

The Apollo 19 moon mission never blasted off, but the first stage of the Saturn V rocket that was going to propel its astronauts serves as a reminder of the momentous Apollo program. This super-sized photo op sits next to the Infinity Science Center, which is loaded with artifacts that explore the Earth, oceans, and space, including an Apollo lunar lander, the Apollo 4 command module, and the space suit of Apollo 13 astronaut and Biloxi native Fred Haise.

Guests also can walk through a replica of the International Space Station Destiny laboratory at Infinity, which serves as the visitors center of the nearby John C. Stennis Space Center, a NASA rocket-testing facility. After learning about space, dive to the Gulf of Mexico’s depths in a submarine simulator.

Mid-America Science Museum

Hot Springs, Arkansas

Mid-America Science Center

Visitors to Mid-America Science Center are greeted by a collection of dinosaurs outside the museum. | Photo courtesy Mid-America Science Museum

The scaled likeness of 15 dinosaurs—including a dangerous-looking T. Rex—inhabit the 21 wooded acres surrounding the Mid-America Science Museum. If youngsters feel threatened while walking the Oaklawn Foundation DinoTrek, they can escape to the Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk, a stunning structure 40 feet off the ground that provides a lofty perspective.

Inside the museum is the Digital Dome Theater and the Marvelous Motion Gallery, where everything moves. Also, watch a vertical wave machine and lightning from the 1.5-million-volt Tesla tower. Many of the more than 100 exhibits invite visitors to touch them, especially the Alliance Rubber Company Tinkering Studio that fosters creative invention.

Mississippi Museum of Natural Science

Jackson, Mississippi

mississippi museum

Fossils from preshistoric times are joined by live alligators, fish, and other creatures at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. | Photo courtesy T.J. Tippit

Among the many things you’ll learn while watching hungry alligators being fed at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science is that they have poor table manners.

Established in 1932, the museum displays the state’s biological diversity with animal habitats that include a 100,000-gallon aquarium network. One entire wall is covered with Mississippi fossils from prehistoric times, including a giant sloth. Stroll a massive terrarium inside and a shady nature trail outside. A center of education and research in Le Fleur’s Bluff State Park, the museum overlooks 300 acres of natural landscape through expanses of glass windows.

Sci-Port Discovery Center

Shreveport, Louisiana

Sci-Port Discovery Center

Hands-on exhibits complement the planetarium, solar observatory, live animals, and children’s play areas at Sci-Port Discovery Center. | Photo courtesy Sci-Port Marketing

Keeping your eyes on the sky is a good suggestion at Sci-Port Discovery Center. Its Dayna and Ronald L. Sawyer Planetarium transports you through space, and the rooftop Peggy and Joe Averett Solar Observatory enlightens visitors about the sun. Visitors can even walk among the stars in a 15-foot tunnel with lights and mirrors that replicate a star field.

Back down to Earth, visit animal enclosures that contain creatures from northwest Louisiana, including snakes and alligators. The staff often bring out the animals for visitor interactions. For the youngest guests, the PoP (Power of Play) Children’s Museum takes a fun approach to teaching science, technology, and math with play spaces such as a barn and a tree house.

Louisiana Art and Science Museum

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Louisiana Art and Science Museum

From art to ancient Egypt to the solar system, the Louisiana Art and Science Museum encourages discovery and inspires creativity. | Photo courtesy Visit Baton Rouge

If you flew to Mars, how much would you weigh there? For an answer, check the scale at the Solar System Gallery of the Louisiana Art and Science Museum. Go back in time to Egypt in an exhibit with an ancient tomb replica that houses an authentic mummy.

Located in a renovated 1925 railway station next to the Mississippi River, the state-of-the-art museum presents laser music shows in its 60-foot-high domed Irene W. Pennington Planetarium. Believing that art and science shape each other, the museum presents a growing collection of American, European, and modern art—many by Louisiana artists.

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John Handley is a contributor from Northbrook, Illinois.

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