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Field Trip: Family STEM Day at LeMay-America's Car Museum

Fuel your kids' brains with a workshop in programming robotic cars

Malia Jacobson

Published on: April 07, 2015

father boy old car museum
Photo credit: LeMay Museum 

Perched like a giant steely bubble in the shadow of the Tacoma Dome, the LeMay Museum cuts an impressive silhouette. My young grade-schoolers, ages 8 and 5, have long admired the building (it opened in June 2012) and were thrilled to visit last month for Family STEM Day. Every third Saturday, the museum’s Family Zone serves as the hub for an interactive STEM learning experience geared toward school-age children, with topics that vary monthly.

Our visit started with my children ogling a glossy antique fire truck in the airy, glass-walled entry while I got checked in and geared up (pun intended) for the visit. Visitors enter on the museum’s top floor and the Family Zone is at the bottom, so guests can meander through displays of hundreds of pristine automobiles, a gift shop, a café, and a family photo op en route. 

In the Family Zone, kids are greeted with a hands-on crank car featuring realistic sounds, lights, and buttons that they can virtually “drive” down a picturesque roadway. My kids could have spent hours on this feature alone, but we had other stops to make; once I pried them out of the car, we headed to the STEM workshop one room over. I’d worried that the subject matter — robotic vehicles — would leave my preschooler behind, but quickly she got into the spirit. Aided by a third-grade mentor from the robotics team program at Gig Harbor Academy, both girls programmed a robotic vehicle to start, stop, and spin, first with help, then on their own. Their mentor cheered them on, and within 10 minutes, all three girls were giggling like old pals.

family car museum
Photo credit: LeMay Museum

The casual, drop-in vibe of this workshop suited my kids’ temperament; when they’d programmed their robotic car a few times, we were free to wander back out into the Family Zone. There they built, rebuilt, and raced Pinewood Derby cars, exploring physics and mechanics; popped in and out of an interactive map of North America as they planned a cross-country “road trip;” and studied under-the-hood tech in a color-coded display.

We couldn’t overlook the row upon row of cars on this level, too — the display includes the Barris Kustom “Flintmobile” used in the 1994 motion picture The Flintstones. My kids both loved the visual eye-candy of the “Route 66” road trip display, with vintage memorabilia, autos, and life-size images from the classic western roadway.

We left when my preschooler ran out of fuel, though the 8-year-old could have stayed hours longer. The kids left with a new appreciation for robotics, a commemorative pencil and stickers from the gift store, and a better understanding of the technology that powers our daily transportation. It’s a safe bet that our family minivan will be motoring back to LeMay sometime soon.

Next Family STEM Day

The next Family STEM Day, on Saturday, April 18, 11 a.m.–4 p.m., is also focused on programming robotic cars. Find out about the workshop here: Kids can watch a robotics competition team and use real-world engineering skills to program robots for specific tasks.

More at LeMay

Other family-friendly features include the interactive “Speed Zone,” with realistic racing simulators ($8) and slot cars ($3/five minutes). Don’t miss the free photo opportunity on the second floor; climb into a 1923 Buick Touring Car for a picture, and you’ll get a free printout, with an optional digital copy emailed to you for sharing.

LeMay also offers summer camps and field trip opportunities. Contact for more information.

Photo credit: LeMay Museum

If you go...

Where and when:

LeMay – America's Car Museum: 

2702 East D St., Tacoma, WA 98421 | Open 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., 7 days a week 


Adult - $16

Senior (Age 65)/Military - $14

Student - $12

Youth (Age 6-12) - $8

Child (5 and under) - Free

Members - Free

STEM Saturdays: 

Third Saturday of the month from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. (Topics vary monthly; check the website for more information.) STEM Saturdays are included with paid admission.

Parking and transportation:

Parking in the LeMay lot is $5. Free parking is available at the Tacoma Dome Station at 424 E. 25th St., a short walk away.

Age recommendations:

Geared for all ages; best for 5 and up.

Nearby dining: 

Easily accessible from I-5, LeMay is an excellent destination for out-of-towners. Eclectic shops and restaurants in a circa-1909 railroad building at Freighthouse Station Marketplace (formerly called Freighthouse Square) make a kid-friendly side stop. After a day at LeMay, cross a parking lot to Tacoma favorite Friesenburgers, a counter-serve burger joint with a loyal following and a gluten-free menu. Two blocks up, the Brown & Haley Almond Roca factory store offers a sweet treat for the ride home.

Freighthouse Station Marketplace: 2501 E D St, Tacoma, WA 98421 | Retail hours vary

Friesenburgers: 308 E 26th St, Tacoma, WA 98421, (253) 203-6753 | 11 a.m.- 7 p.m Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday

Brown & Haley Factory Store: 110 East 26th St, Tacoma, WA 98421, (253) 620-3067 | 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Sunday

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