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Science Carnival

At the Carnegie Science Centerís Science Carnival exhibit,  physics isnít hard, itís fun. 

By M. A. Boldurian 

Science Carnival opens on the second floor on July 3. In October it moves to the fourth floor for the holidays. 

Physics surrounds us," says Sean Lally, Sewickley Academyís Science Department chair and a winner of the Carnegieís 1998 Science Award for Excellence. "From driving in a car, to the moon going around the earth -- itís unavoidable." 

While most people can define physics as the study of matter and energy and the relationship between them, if you probe further youíll undoubtedly get a blank stare. "Physics gets a bad rap," says Lally. "You hear the word Ďphysicsí and you think, Ďthatís really hard.í" 

While Science Carnival is aimed primarily at middle-school-aged children, there are attractions for toddlers and exhibits perfect for inquisitive adults who wonder why things happen the way they do. After spending a day interacting with Science Carnivalís exhibit pieces, youíll be able to impress co-workers with your new-found knowledge, help your children understand a difficult science and, best of all, not have to give the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look when physics comes up in a conversation. 

Featuring 21 highly interactive displays in a 5,000-square-foot space, Science Carnival touches on basic physics principles (forces, motion, optics, sound and energy transfer) as well as engineering, machines and cognitive thinking--all with large, hands-on colorful exhibit components. Visitors get to play with a giant Newtonís Cradle made of basketballs, spin in a gyroscope and ride a balance bike -- all in the name of science. 

Exhibit Development Specialist Dennis Bateman, who produced Science Carnival with the help of a development assistant, three designers and six fabricators, says the exhibit will help acquaint visitors with physics, and get them to accept the concepts. 

According to Lally, a basic physics understanding is important to everyone because it helps us understand simple things and why they happen. It also protects us. "Youíre less likely to be duped by techno-speak or pseudoscientific talk if you understand physics," Lally says, referring to unreliable science websites, using pendulums for predictions, and books which use quantum physics as psychology. 

If youíre thinking, "this sounds much too complex for my child," fear not. "Any age is an appropriate age to be introduced to physics," Lally says. "Different ages will get different things from an exhibit [such as Science Carnival]." Lally adds that by middle school all children should be getting some physics basics. 

Science teachers often have one of two approaches to teaching physics. Some adhere to a purely conceptual method (i.e. no math), while others, such as Lally, feel teachers do a disservice to their students if they do not include those mind-boggling math formulas. 

"My students say, ĎWhy do you obscure this with mathematics,í" Lally says. "But thatís what you need to make predictions. Physics is modeling reality, and to describe anything you use models. Math is one of the tools used to describe things." Lally also subscribes to the school that thinks students should get their feet wet in physics before going on to other sciences such as biology. "Physics deals with all there is -- from the smallest particles to the largest -- the universe. Since it covers so much, it makes sense to present it to students first." 

Dennis Bateman says that when children have fun doing something, they are more likely to retain information. Therefore, exhibits such as Science Carnival are great introductions into the daunting world of science -- the enjoyment children have interacting with the exhibit pieces can later be drawn from while theyíre in the classroom. 

Bateman adds that because the Science Center has a larger budget and access to a vast display space, it can produce an exhibit unrivaled by any classroom. 

"Physics works no matter what the size of the exhibit is," Bateman says. "We give a sense of scale...things parents and teachers canít do." Bateman, however, stresses the exhibit is meant to augment the classroom and family role, not replace it. 

This is some of what youíll experience: 

The Newtonís Cradle is a great example of the scale the Science Center can produce. Ever seen one of those little pendulum toys with steel balls frequently found on the cluttered desks of busy executives? Now imagine those balls are the size of basketballs. Swing the first ball, watch it crash into the next and send the last balloon the line flying. Fun? Yes. Mindless? Not really -- if you consider itís a perfect example of the law of conservation of energy which states when any object is given a certain momentum in a given direction, some other body (or bodies) will receive an equal momentum in the opposite direction. In this case, the momentum of the first ball is conserved as it hits and travels through the other balls. This summer remember those bouncing balls when you bowl, play pool, or, if youíre a busy executive, swinging the steel balls on your desktop "toy." 

The tightrope walk usually draws the most oohs and aahs at a circus. Science Carnival lets you perform your own tightrope act. Suspended six feet off the ground on a one-half inch cable, the Balance Bike allows you to pedal safely -- without a net -- across the room no matter how much you weigh. This feat is accomplished thanks to the 200-pound counterweight, located five feet below the bike, which moves your point of balance or center of gravity below the wire instead of above it. In physics thatís stated: "the single force equal to the entire weight of an object and considered to be acting at a given place called the center of gravity." At home you can try to find the center of gravity of different objects by balancing them -- if you support it at any point other than its center of gravity, it will keep moving. Objects, therefore, become more stable the closer theyíre balanced to their center of gravity. This is why ice dancers lift their partners from the waist and not the shoulder or hips. 

Summer brings the serene sounds of windchimes chiming. But why do all windchimes sound different? The Pipe of Pan exhibit helps explain as you create your own tune by hitting the ends of giant pan pipes with foam paddles. The different lengths of the pipes affect the tone (a different amount of matter is being vibrated). The display also demonstrates resonance -- the process by which sound vibrations build up -- and pitch -- the degree of highness or lowness on the musical scale judged by the frequency of the soundwaves. As you play with this display, see if you can predict what type of tone the different lengths of pipe will produce. Next time you buy a soft drink, try your own resonance/pitch experiment by blowing across the bottle top and notice how the sound changes the more you drink. 

As youíre enjoying the next blockbuster at the local multiplex remember youíre seeing individual "photos" on the screen, not actual motion. But because the images flick by so quickly (24 frames per second) by the time your brain catches up with your eye, the image has changed. This is persistence of vision. At the Zoetrope conduct your own persistence of vision experiment -- twist the eight rubber figures mounted on a wheel into different poses, spin the wheel and watch as the eight figures appear to become a single moving character. 


Lightening strikes, a few seconds later thunder crashes. Why? Light travels faster than sound. The Sound Tube demonstrates the sound delay as you speak into one end of a 200-foot tube and then, a fraction of a second later, hear the words in the earpiece. Sound is not instantaneous. 

And thatís just the beginning. Spin like a toy top in the huge 3-axis gyroscope. Lift a group of people off the ground at the Lever Lift. Become an engineer while playing with the Catenary Arch displayís large upholstered foam pieces. Keep the wee ones busy with the Build It! exhibitís giant foam blocks. 

"Any age is appropriate to introduce the basics of physics to," says Lally. "It deals with simple things, but in a way you never thought of before." 

Isnít it about time you understand? 

--Suggestions from Sean Lally, Sewickley Academyís Science Department chair 


M.A. Boldurian is a senior editor at Mt. Lebanon Magazine, and a free-lance writer. 


Tips for parents to help children with science 

Helping children understand physics -- or any science -- involves more work than a fun visit to the Science Center. Remember that summertime is a perfect time to experience the variety of science. Here's how to help--both in and out of the classroom.  

1) Itís OK to say "Gee, I donít know," but be ready to help your child find the answer.  

If itís a simple answer you seek, try your childís textbook, the Handy Science Answer Book series, advanced texts (college), or the Internet. Be aware, however, some Internet sites provide misleading or wrong answers. While some sites (such as NASA) are reliable, others are more difficult to evaluate. Always put the impetus on your child to find the answers.  

2) Make it a project, and be excited about finding an answer. If your child wants to know  

what the climate is like on Mars, make it a team effort -- with your child in control. Itís never too early to give a child intellectual responsibility, even if you have to help as a guide.  

3) Donít give up easily on the problem. Some problems take days, months or even a lifetime to solve. When do you stop? Thatís difficult to answer, as it depends on the question and your child. If your child wonders why they get queasy on a roller coaster, youíre in luck. If they ask you to describe the structural nature of subatomic particles, you may have to punt. Always give it a good try.  

4) Help your child keep good notesóinside and outside the classroom. Taking a notebook to a museum can be a great family activity. When your child sees something interesting, puzzling or curious, have them write it down. Draw diagrams, list questions, write down names of scientific principles and list ideas for family projects. For school, each subject should have a separate notebook, and each entry should be dated, titled, organized and legible. Tell your child itís okay to keep a "geeky" notebook with multiple colors and diagrams. Not only will this help them study more effectively, but friends will seek them for help when theyíve been absent.  

5) Take advantage of local opportunities. In the Tri-state area, we are fortunate to have many avenues to pursue intellectual curiosity. Donít wait for school field trips to attend public university lectures, the Carnegie Museums, classes, workshops, local nature centers or stargazing nights. This can be as simple as a walk in Frick Park or as organized as a day trip on the Pittsburgh Voyager. And have your child explain things to you--explaining something to someone else is truly the best way to learn. Just ask a teacher!  

6) Set up a home study area thatís free from distraction. Be away from TV, stereos and the Internet (depending on its use). Each evening should include a quiet study time. This will help your child structure their school and free time. Be a part of this -- take time-out to work on a quiet activity beside them. If space permits, help your child build a small science lab for simple at-home experiments. 

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