Where can your family have a hair-raising experience doing safe science experiments, meet world-famous scientists and explore a secret city? All this and more is available to discover at the American Museum of Science and Energy in East Tennessee! It may be one of the Knoxville area’s best-kept secrets.
I’ve had the privilege of being able to volunteer once a week at the museum this winter in Oak Ridge, where the museum is maintained by the United States Department of Energy. The museum is part historic testament to the brave men and women who founded Oak Ridge in the 1942 and part modern-day learning laboratory for students of all ages. The entire city of Oak Ridge is now considered part of the newly formed Manhattan Project National Historical Park, so the National Park Service is increasing its role in helping to tell the area’s unique story. Yet, places like the AMSE already have a long history of sharing this story with visitors from all over the world.
The city that is home to the AMSE is considered a major historic site in the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic weapons to eventually end World War II. If you visit the museum, you’ll want to begin with the Oak Ridge Story room that navigates a tempestuous time in world history and introduces the people and their secret work during the time when the entire city was gated and guarded from the outside world. At the beginning of this exhibit is a photo spot where you can take a souvenir ID photo similar to those required of all Oak Ridge residents and workers. Inside you can see a work space where the so-called Calutron Girls, young women, worked tediously to separate Uraniam 235 from Uranium 238 at a machine that was critically important to the war effort. Part of their unique story was that neither these young women, nor thousands of other workers, knew exactly how their specific task fit into the Manhattan Project at the time.
As you might imagine, volunteers are needed at the museum to help with a number of tasks that can assist the staff members. This includes everything from pointing visitors to the nearest restroom and hushing rambunctious groups of student visitors to restocking brochures. One unique task delegated to volunteers is monitoring the temperature and humidity on an exhibit that is considered to be part of the Smithsonian collection. It is the original U-235 gaseous diffusion model from Columbia University Laboratory that was a pattern for the full-scale plant later created as part of the federal Manhattan Project work in the Oak Ridge area.
I was honored to spend some volunteer training time with one of the many retired Oak Ridge area professionals, retired health physicist Benny Houser. He and his contemporaries are able to share extensive historical knowledge with museum visitors, even narrating for buses of tour groups each spring and summer. The oral histories that Houser and others share are part of a collective national treasure. The museum also showcases information about the world’s top scientists who’ve studied nuclear energy.
Science and energy exhibits are wide-ranging at the AMSE, including basics about forms of energy, how machines work and the chance to peer through a microscope at bacteria and volcanic dust. For school-aged children, there are several hands-on opportunities for exploration, from robotic arms to interactive question and answer games. The live demonstration of the Van de Graaff generator is popular as it teaches about energy with its powerful visuals. Visitors can also explore the various ways science at federal facilities in Oak Ridge has supported the US space program throughout the years, including creating moonboxes and more modern-day customized equipment.
The museum offers ongoing curriculum for homeschoolers as well as science programs to support local schools. Visitors to the museum may also view a rich collection of rare, historical photos and films about the Manhattan Project, World War II aviation, and local history. The museum can be rented for special events or even science-based birthday parties.
An area that has often held temporary, traveling exhibits currently remains available for something new. The facility seems able to accommodate even more new exhibits and events, with an ebb and flow to attendance that peaks in the summer tourist season. If you are local, the membership provides a great value and offers reciprocity with other science museums.
If you are in the East Tennessee area and would like to apply as a volunteer, you can contact Volunteer Coordinator Glenda Bingham. She also handles scheduling for groups of visitors.