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Exploratorium reimagines the American road trip

“Welcome to WildCard” exhibit at renowned SF attraction uses cardboard to show how art fits into STEM.

If you've ever driven along Route 66, the newest exhibit at San Francisco's Exploratorium museum may ring a few bells. Riverfront casinos. Questionable motels. Cool roadside attractions. They're all here. But they're all made of plain brown cardboard.

"Welcome to WildCard," which opens Saturday, reimagines the historic US highway as a river you can walk along. Houses, coffee shops and a theater made of corrugated cardboard cluster around a path of shining blue lights that represent water.

Artists from the Cardboard Institute of Technology, a collective that taps recyclables for its installations, use these metaphors of winding waterway and classic American road trip to carry visitors through a fanciful landscape where artistic license holds sway. Scale gets warped, with birds becoming giant beasts. And geography, too, gets a makeover: A papery Stonehenge travels from England to America to become "Cardhenge."

Apart from simply creating a wonderland out of discarded boxes, the show serves to demonstrate the intersection of science and art, one of the Exploratorium's chief goals. A philosophy that marries these two disciplines has guided the self-proclaimed "public learning laboratory" since its doors first opened, in 1969.

"The idea that science and art are distinct from one another is so problematic,"  said Exploratorium spokesman Martin Rock, who pointed out that both center on inquiry-based thinking. "People will see a display and ask, 'Is it art? Is it science?' And the answer is, 'Yes.'"

The WildCard exhibit comes amid a push to get young people more interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- fields collectively known as STEM.  Advocates for STEM education say that with demand for professionals in these fields rising, it's important to train future generations to take on these jobs and tackle some of society's most pressing challenges.

But there's also an effort to incorporate art and design into the mix, transforming STEM into STEAM (with the "A" signaling the addition). Supporters say art and design education inspires flexible thinking and creative problem-solving that the sciences alone don't provide. The STEAM approach aligns more closely with the Exploratorium's mission.

Robyn Higdon, who's in charge of "museum experience," said STEM proponents sometimes overlook the role of imagination. The museum, she said, is using exhibits like WildCard to encourage young visitors to stretch theirs.

"It always starts with being inspired," Higdon said. Visitors might be fired up by what the exhibit depicts -- waterways and construction -- or the thought of working with their hands.

Higdon appreciates the role technology plays in the museum's exhibits, as well as in everyday life. Still, she hopes the display encourages people to unplug.

"I love being a part of the Silicon Valley," Higdon said. "But I'm hopeful that one of the impacts of this show will be to inspire people to set down their digital devices, just for a minute … and to go home and create their own worlds."

Welcome to WildCard runs from June 17 to Sept. 4. Tickets are $29.95 for adults, $24.95 for seniors, and $19.95 for youth. They're free for members, and for children 3 and under. 

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