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Highlights of the Museum of Science & Industry: A Chicago Family Day Trip

Updated on October 27, 2014

Airplanes, Baby Chicks and a Captured Nazi Submarine: A Day at the Museum

The Museum of Science & Industry on the south side of Chicago is a wonderful place to spend a day for the entire family. The largest science museum in the western hemisphere, it has more than 2,000 things to see or do spread out over 75 halls.

Originally built as the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the museum sprawls out in every direction across three floors and even the most energetic visitor will find it hard to really see everything. We took our best shot during a recent vacation, but came up short even though we were there the entire day.

Here are some of the highlights that we saw during our visit. All photos are by us unless otherwise noted.

Airplanes, Trains and Tractors

Stuka Museum of Science and Industry Chicago
Stuka Museum of Science and Industry Chicago

If you like seeing different types of vehicles you could probably spend the entire visit just visiting the various exhibits that show how mankind gets around. On the third floor you are able to walk through an actual United Airlines 727 to learn all about its technology and marvel at how small it feels compares to the largest planes of today. There is a 1917 ``Jenny'' biplane hanging above, as well as one of only two remaining World War II German Stukas (see photo).

On level 2, there are numerous train engines that show the history of the locomotive. The highlight of the exhibit is a large area (easily 3,000 square feet or more) that has more than 10 toy trains traveling on tracks that wind between replica cities and landscapes from Chicago to Seattle. The museum says the exhibit has the capacity to have 30 trains going at once, and I believe it (but I didn't count!).

Downstairs is the farm tech area, where you can climb on a John Deere combine and pretend to be a farmer. The machine, from the year 2000, cost $240,000. You can also try your hand at capping and milking a cow and learn all about soybeans and how they are in a wide variety of the products you use everyday.

While we found the trains pretty neat, some of the exhibits in the farm area seemed to be aimed at such a young crowd that we kind of skimmed through the exhibit.

The Most Helpful Guidebook

We usually travel with three or four guidebooks, as we find that each one contains slightly different but useful information.

This book was the one we found most helpful. An added plus is that it is slender so it wasn't a bother when we carried it around.

See below for a more extensive selection of tour books.

Mine Museum of Science and Industry Chicago
Mine Museum of Science and Industry Chicago

Visiting the Coal Mine

The Museum's First Interactive Exhibit

The museum calls the coal mine tour its first interactive experience, dating from the place's first year of operation in 1933.

You start on the museum's second floor, entering a shaft elevator that simulates bringing you down into the mine (actually, it only takes you down to the lower level of the museum).

There you take a very short ride on a mine train, then see a variety of mine equipment including sump pumps, undercutting machines and more before viewing a modern control room where the operations would be overseen with the use of television monitors and computers. Be warned, the exhibit can be pretty loud when the machines are demonstrated!

The tour moves very quickly, and the guide we had was a pretty no-nonsense woman who seemed to rush us along when we wanted to linger over something. There's an extra charge for the exhibit, so unless you are really into mining I would suggest skipping this.

World War II Sub Museum of Science and Industry Chicago
World War II Sub Museum of Science and Industry Chicago

The Capture of U-505 and the Battle of the Atlantic

A major attraction of the museum is the German U-505 submarine that was captured by the United States on June 4, 1944, off the west coast of Africa. You can tour the inside of the sub for an extra charge, but even if you don't want to go inside you should take time to visit the exhibit, which does a great job explaining both the capture and the Battle of the Atlantic.

To get to the sub you walk through a history of the Battle of the Atlantic, which is the name Winston Churchill gave to the naval blockades against Great Britain and Germany and the various combatants' efforts to defeat them. The battle ran from 1939 to the end of the war, with the loss of Allied merchant ships climbing through the first four years before receding as the U.S. forces exerted dominance. In 1939, the Nazis sank 114 merchant ships. By 1942 the total was 1,150. In all, about 3,000 Allied ships were sunk.

On June 4, 1944, depth charges damaged U-505, forcing it to the surface and leading its crew to abandon ship so quickly that scuttling operations weren't completed. That enabled the U.S. to send a crew aboard and take control of the sub. The exhibit makes clear that the boarding party in essence was sent on a possible suicide mission, since there was no way of knowing whether the sub had been set to self-destruct.

It's a great compelling story of bravery, and the exhibit does a wonderful job in giving the sailors their due.

Space Module Museum of Science and Industry Chicago
Space Module Museum of Science and Industry Chicago

An Actual Space Module and Learning About Space Junk

The entrance to the Omnimax movie is on the lower level, and to reach it we passed the space exploration exhibit which I found to be truly fascinating. It is very well-done, explaining how mankind reached outer space and the moon, the challenges that were faced and what may lie ahead for the space program.

The area includes the actual Apollo 8 command module used by astronauts Jim Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders when they became the first humans to reach moon's orbit and return safely to Earth in December 1968. It is amazing just how tiny the space vessel is.

Also in the exhibit is a lunar sample, a full mock-up of a landing module on the moon and a mock space shuttle that enables you to try your hand at flying the craft.

Appropriately enough, we watched a movie called ''Space Junk'' in the Omnimax theatre about the growing danger represented by the many satellites and old pieces of space ships that are circling the earth. There are more than 6,000 tons of space junk flying around above, including 400 dead satellites, and they are a hazard to the working satellites and any spacecraft that is sent up. Pretty amazing to even think about.

Space Junk Preview

Here is a preview of the movie ''Space Junk,'' which the science museum in St. Louis posted on YouTube. It is the same version that is appearing at the Chicago museum.

Genetics and the Birth of Chicks

Eggs Museum of Science and Industry Chicago
Eggs Museum of Science and Industry Chicago

In contrast to such areas as the circus and farm tech, the Decoding Life exhibit is aimed at an older and more knowledgeable crowd. Focused on genetics and the ethics of genetic engineering, the exhibit uses cloned mice to explain why and how scientists are studying cloning and deals with such questions as ''Would my clone look exactly like me?'' Answer: No, it would look younger.

There are genetically engineered frogs that have had their DNA injected with a jellyfish gene, affecting the color of the frogs' eyes. Unfortunately, when we were there the darn frogs declined to open their eyes for us to see.

At the back of the exhibit is the hatchery, which the museum says is one of its most-beloved areas. Fertilized eggs are placed in the hatchery each day so visitors can see little chicks hatch. Above are some of the eggs that we saw early in the day. Later in this article we'll show you what was in the hatchery when we returned later in the day!

The younger half of the Goldenrulecomics team is 14, and found this exhibit fascinating. But younger kids might just want to look at the animals and move on.

Up in the Sky...It's the Superman Cone!

We strolled along Yesterday's Main Street, which is a re-creation of a typical Chicago road from the early 20th century that enables you to peek into old-fashioned law offices, stores and a post office.

At the end of the street we stopped in Finnigan's Ice Cream Parlor, which is a real operating shop open seasonally and is based on a real establishment in this area of Chicago.

The younger half of the Goldenrulecomics team had a Superman cone, which consisted of blue moon, wild cherry and lemon flavors (see above). We're not sure what the blue moon flavor was -- maybe blueberry. But she had fun eating it.

Bicycle Museum of Science and Industry Chicago
Bicycle Museum of Science and Industry Chicago

Inventors, Toymaking, the Human Body and Much More

There are too many other exhibits for us to describe them all in detail, unfortunately. There's an area about businessmen and women such as Mary Kay Ash, Ray A. Kroc and William E. Boeing and how they have affected the way we live our lives. There's also a section on modern-day innovators including Lonnie Johnson, the inventor of the Super Soaker; Steve Fambro; the developer of an electric vehicle and Peter Diamandis, a leader in space tourism. I found this area thought-provoking.

The children enjoyed the human body exhibit, which explained how we use food for energy and has human-size guinea-pig exercise wheel for visitors to try out (this was one of my son's favorite things to do).

Also worth seeing is the history of the bicycle exhibit, which traces the development of the bicycle over the past 200 years. Particularly interesting are the most modern ones, which include the most up-to-date technology and include some cool innovations. The bicycle pictured here, for instance, is an all-cardboard one developed by an Israeli that may end up being marketed for $20. Amazing.

Have You Been to the Museum of Science & Industry?

Airplanes Museum of Science and Industry Chicago
Airplanes Museum of Science and Industry Chicago

Have You Been to the Museum of Science & Industry?

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