SciQuest: Up Close and Learning

Experience Flight, Natural Forces and Waves at a New Science Center Exhibit

By Mark Petruzzini

According to the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, there is only a moderate possibility of an earthquake in Pittsburgh. But at the newest addition to the Carnegie Science Center, SciQuest, you can experience an earthquake, get up close to a miniature tornado, and be blown away by a full-size wind tunnel.

SciQuest consists of 28 exhibits, many of them created for the Science Center by its staff of designers and craftsmen, as well as a number of successful exhibits purchased from around the world.

Science Center Director Seddon Bennington says SciQuest represents "what the public comes to grips with what they are looking for when they come to the Science Center: hands-on, interactive learning. SciQuest does things on a scale larger than what people are used to."

SciQuest represents a growing trend at the Science Center-exhibits that allow visitors to play an active role in the scientific display. This hands-on exposure makes it easier to understand principles that are difficult to present in a classroom environment.

SciQuest team leader Dennis Bateman hopes that if a school group takes one field trip during the school year, it will be to the Science Center, because the exhibit is especially valuable for teachers. It offers learning opportunities not possible in the classroom because of the size, cost and scope of the equipment involved. Designers presented an advisory panel -nine teachers from seven different school districts in Western Pennsylvania-a blank blueprint for the exhibit's floor plan, and let them choose which exhibits to incorporate. The teachers agreed on three difficult areas to explore in the classroom: 1) the physics of flight, such as wind dynamics, 2) forces of nature, like hurricanes and tornadoes, and 3) the science of light and sound waves, such as fiber optics and echoes.

The approach to each topic is called a "Quest." A class studying light and sound waves can go on the Sound Quest, for example, and use a set of educational materials to guide them through exhibits such as the Echo Tube, Visible Waves, and Rock Core Xylophone. If you take the Quake Quest you visit the Quake Room, Shake Tables, Seismographs and other earthquake-related exhibits. Teachers will be able to find these pre-visit "starter kits" for their students online at the Carnegie Science Center's homepage on the World Wide Web, and can visit displays related to the subjects they're teaching.

The SciQuest project began one year ago, made possible by a grant from the Grable Foundation, which supported the need to produce better educational resources for middle-schoolers-seventh through tenth grades. While test versions of the exhibit have been up for several months, SciQuest officially opens November 23. Here's a look at what you'll find:

The Physics of Flight

What keeps a plane in the air, and how can two feathers fall at the same speed? SciQuest visitors witness the physics behind these principles first hand. The Testing Tunnel challenges paper airplane builders to test their creations in a miniature wind tunnel and see how well they stand up to flight. If the airflow around the wings is uniform, the plane will be stable in flight, and if not, changing the angle of the back of the wing will dramatically change flight direction. To experience the effect yourself, strap on a pair of arm-length wings and step into the Wind Tunnel, a human-size counterpart to the Testing Tunnel, and feel how and why birds change the angle of their wings in flight. It's one of the best ways to learn Daniel Bernoulli's principles, showing how the curvature on top of a wing directs airflow down, and produces lift. More of this Italian physicist's theories can be found at work at Bernoulli Set, a table with three examples that illustrate ideas from his work.

Studying bird wings is an ideal way to learn more about air movement over wings. Visitors can see cross sections of bones and feathers, or run their hands along the Bird Wing Motion Railing, a metal walkway that will give patrons the feeling of what it's like to be a bird flapping its wings.

To see why that feather and coin drop at the same rate, visit Gravity Gets Me Down, two sealed tubes with two objects in each. One tube is filled with air and the other is in a vacuum. Because there is no air resistance in the vacuum tube, both objects will fall at the same speed. That's not the case in the air-filled tube (or anywhere in the Earth's atmosphere) because of the molecules displaced as an object falls. The feather, because of its shape, size and weight, will be slowed down much more than the coin.

Some of the ideas behind SciQuest are classic scientific demonstrations, such as the beach ball floating over a mounted fan. Because of its shape, air will travel uniformly around the surface of the ball. So even tipped at 45 degrees, the air flowing underneath it will hold it in the air. Bateman added his own touch to the exhibit by replacing the beachball with a giant plastic eyeball.

The Physics of Flight doesn't have to take place in the air. Drag Race pits three contending shapes through a green solution to see which moves most quickly: a circle, a cube or an airfoil. The airfoil moves fastest because its aerodynamic shape creates the least drag in the liquid to slow it down. As the exhibit points out, this shape is the same as part of another Science Center exhibit, the bow of the U.S.S. Requin submarine, moored just outside in the Ohio River.

Forces of Nature

It's bound to be a SciQuest favorite-the Quake Room. Imported from a science center in New Zealand, the five-by-seven-foot booth allows visitors to set a magnitude and feel the tremors of a simulated earthquake. Patrons learn about plate-tectonics-the study of how earthquakes occur because of the shifting of the plates that make up the Earth's crust. Seismologists, the scientists who study earthquakes, frequently work with architects in high-risk earthquake areas like San Francisco, deciding which building materials will lessen the disastrous effects of an earthquake. Budding seismologists can design their own buildings at the Shake Tables, where they decide on the size, arrangement and materials that can handle a simulated earthquake when the table becomes an earthquake zone. San Francisco's Transamerica building is an earthquake-resistant structure because of its triangular shape. Some buildings can sway as much as three feet in an earthquake. To learn more, visit the Seismic Waves computer, an interactive tutorial that shows the global effects of a shockwave.

Tornadoes are one of nature's most awesome natural phenomena. High- and low-pressure winds create a vortex that can reach speeds of up to 300 miles per hour. There is still much that remains unknown about how twisters form, in an increasing effort to understand when and where they will strike. The Tornado Chamber is a clear cylindrical chamber, fitted at the bottom with two humidifiers. At the top there is a cooling fan from a personal computer. The effect is a realistic miniature tornado. By adjusting the amount of mist in the chamber, patrons can adjust its movement and size.

Hurricanes, which often precede or accompany tornadoes, are also a SciQuest focus. Visitors can spin a disc three feet in diameter and watch as a pearlized fluid, the same solution found in some desktop novelty items (a mixture of fish scales and liquid soap), spins around to form hurricane cloud formations. If you'd rather create a hurricane in cyberspace, try the Air Pressure Computer Simulation. This computer model, written at the Augsburg College in Minnesota, lets users manipulate weather conditions like air pressure, moisture and wind direction, then watch as the resulting weather systems come together.

SciQuest takes a look at the real-life effect of these phenomena. At the Video Stack, nine television monitors show footage of natural disasters around the world and their aftermath. SciQuest designers tried to make the exhibits as helpful to applied science in the classroom as possible, designing each presentation so that it will hold the interest of sixth through ninth graders.

Light and Sound Waves

The Light and Sound Waves exhibit teaches the science of what we hear and see. White light, in the Light Mixing exhibit, is created by combining the three primary colors. Visitors control the amounts of each color in the mixture, and see how it influences the hue of the resulting field. The Infrared Sheet exhibit seems like high-tech spy technology when an infrared camera captures your picture and projects it onto a large screen, but it illustrates an important optical principle about what parts of the light spectrum are visible to the naked eye. To see yet another part of the spectrum, take a look at the Ultraviolet Objects exhibit and see how images look under white and ultraviolet light.

The study of light waves has made fiber optics possible-an increasingly valuable technology to meet new demands for faster communications and larger information resources. Visitors see fiber optics work, and learn how the angle of light refracting on the inside of a fiber optic tube allows a laser light to pass from one end to the other.

For music lovers, there's the Rock-Core Xylophone, where visitors can play out a melody with rocks. Different sized rocks will create varying tones, for a unique sound you're not likely to hear anywhere else. If singing is more your style, try the Echo Tube, and learn why a sound repeats itself. Echoes are caused by sound waves being reflected off the surface of an object, and different sized tubes create different sounding echoes.

Since opening in 1991, the Science Center has stressed innovative exhibits like SciQuest that give western Pennsylvania an educational advantage in learning science. One benefit of relocating exhibits and offices to make room for SciQuest is that other creative programs such as YouthAlive! (see the May/June 1996 Carnegie Magazine) have more opportunity to grow.

Mark Petruzzini is the electronic editor of Carnegie Magazine.