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Playing with Science:

A First Look at Exploration Station

By Ellen S. Wilson

Kids experience the process of science by diving into a creative environment

The billiard ball caroms down the table, bouncing off rubber o-rings that have been stretched around pegs, and drops into a hole with a satisfying plunk.
"Youíre supposed to aim for the holes?" I ask. I donít get it yet.

"Thatís up to you," Dennis patiently explains. "They can be goals or traps."

Weíre not in some pool hall. Weíre at Carnegie Science Center playing a game called Rebound. Dennis Bateman, Exhibit Development Specialist and Georg Taube, Senior Exhibit Designer led a team of Educators, Development Specials, Designers, and Technical Staff in producing the exhibition. On this brisk October morning, Dennis is showing me around the new Exploration Station and Exploration Station, Jr., scheduled to open February 18. At the moment, we are touring the cavernous Miller building, a warehouse where prototypes are developed and final components assembled. About 75% of the components for the new exhibit were designed right here, says Dennis, and about 60% of them are being built here. But back to Rebound, which took two months to design by Georg and his colleague, Bryan Abraham.
"I find that if you try to avoid the holes, youíve got a really good chance of hitting them"

"I find that if you try to avoid the holes, youíve got a really good chance of hitting them," says Dennis. This is a perfect example of the Science Centerís "open-ended experience." You can change the placement of the o-rings, and get a different outcome every time. "And if you decide you want to snap the kid beside you," Dennis says, demonstrating with a rubbery o-ring. "They donít snap. We tested for that." Educators and a family advisory panel were consulted throughout the planning stages of the new Exploration Stations, but the appeal of the new exhibit boils down to the fact that the Exhibit Development and Design Department at Carnegie Science Center know whatís fun. 

Dennis and Georg love open-ended experiences, as do all the other team members. Dennis and Georg are a kind of dynamic duo, quick-witted and creative, playing off of each otherís jokes and obviously enjoying their work. They both have a similar twinkle in their eyes and an obvious mutual respect. 

Soon visitors will get to play Rebound and a host of other "explorations" in the comfort of a newly refurbished fourth floor. The large windows, which were always there, but have been covered over, are being opened up, and new carpeting delineates two different Exploration Stations. The early childhood area, Exploration Station Junior, is geared toward children ages 3 to 6, and represents a decision by the Science Center to provide more activities for this younger age group. The original Early Learnersí Landing, on the third floor, has been a popular area for young children since the Science Center opened in 1991, but it was too small. The new area is 40% bigger, accommodates families more comfortably, and holds as many as three school groups at a time. It will be easier now for adults to interact with children. Tips for parents, such as simple facts to help explain the whatís and whyís, will be posted as well. The water table, the most popular item in the old Early Learners Landing, is being expanded, with an additional basin, new water toys, and ramps to make it more accessible. The Archimedes' screw, which moves water up a hill, will be shortened, and Design Assistant Mary Hoehl, who redesigned the entire water table, has added an interactive paddle wheel so that children can more easily see how the screw works.

We saw that young children really couldnít understand that their own actions were making water pour into the top basin," Georg says. "We learn a lot from observation here. Hopefully, each gallery is better than the previous one." Dennis has a background in film production, and Georg majored in technical design for the theater, and has experience designing toys and arcade games.

"It seems odd, but it ends up being a good fit," Dennis says of their different backgrounds. "We have access to scientific advisors, but weíre not scientists," Georg adds. "We know what it takes to get people to understand these principles."

As we look around the new exhibit space, we see two teen-age girls sitting on the floor in one corner, thoughtfully enclosing themselves in a cabin made of Timber Doodles, an invention of the Science Center design staff. These large foam building pieces modeled after Lincoln Logs are aimed at a much younger audience, but so what? There is something about the sight of the girls on the floor forgetting all about looking cool that is eminently pleasing to Dennis and Georg. The Timber Doodles will go in the Construction area of Exploration Station Jr.

The early childhood area also includes an Agriculture section, complete with the large tractor children love to climb on, a shallow sandbox with some toy tractors pulling different tools, and plastic vegetables that slip into rows of carpet "soil." I know my own children, at age 3 or even younger, would have spent hours earnestly planting and harvesting these vegetables. The Ball Factory lets children explore simple mechanics and principles of movement through the use of buckets, jets, a conveyor belt and spiral ramps. They might even reflect on the similarities and differences between the movement of balls, and the movement of water. Or they might not. There is no right or wrong way to do this.

After all these activities, the Quiet Spot, with books, seating, a place to regroup, have a snack, and figure out what comes next, will be a welcome spot for everyone. Exploration Station Jr. will be separated from the rest of the 4th floor activities by an observation deck, a 7-foot high wall with bridges, platforms, a catwalk, and lots of different things for children to look through - lenses, colored filters, fly eyes. Young children can even peer down at their older siblings in Exploration Station. A Chick Hatchery will be accessible to both Exploration Station and Junior, with age-appropriate activities on each side to learn about animal needs and habitats. Younger children can crawl through a tree and play with animal puppets, while on the other side, older kids experiment with Build-A-Critter, a foam animal form to which they can add wings, a trunk, a beak, or different types of feet.

One activity that is sure to be a highlight of Exploration Station, the area for children 7 and up, is Riverscape, a Three Rivers-shaped water table with a fast current. Magnetically anchored dam walls, stacking topographic plates, pumps, siphons and locks provide endless ways to manipulate the natural movement of the water and capture its energy. This is one of many ways in which the Science Center deliberately stresses the relevance of science to this region. How many of these children will have their lives affected in some way by the rivers rolling by outside?

Other areas in Exploration Station are devoted to Mechanics and Engineering, Electricity and Magnetism, Motion, Sound, Structures, Simple Machinery, and Animation. My own family came across one item, Plumb Crazy, in its prototype phase a few months back and spent a good half hour on it. This Velcro wall has an assortment of PVC pipes that you can stick on and roll a ball through, letting it go in and out of the holes and ending up, maybe, where you intended it to go. "You could learn about gravity," says Georg. "But itís really about engineering and design."

"We learned from the SciQuest exhibit that the most popular activities were open-ended," Dennis explains. Itís the Science Center way - getting involved with the process rather than just pushing a button and making a light go on.

Visitors can play with the principles of animation at the Strobe Station, which shoots a strobe light at various spinning images. One alternates pictures of a buffalo and a cage, and if you get the strobe blinking just right, the whirling buffalo actually ends up in the cage. Another disk has discombobulated pieces of a face. With a few adjustments to the strobe, the face is back together.

The Animation station consists of a blue square on a table, which appears on a computer screen overhead. We put a plastic goldfish on the table, press Record, move the fish, record again, and when we push Play, the fish swims up and down across the screen. From the soundtrack selection, we choose "Happy Tune." We add a little green person, a scream . . .

"Basically, we provide the materials, and let the visitor explore," says Dennis. And what the visitor to the Animation area will discovery is a greater understanding of how electronic images can be manipulated, and a sense of control over what is typically a passive experience.

There is a model of the water cycle and purification process, that uses small whiffle balls instead of actual wastewater. Sometimes the ball goes to the farm to be fertilizer, or to the water treatment plant. If it falls from the rain cloud, it usually goes right into the water table. But not every time.

"Itís justÖ," says Georg, "Öwacky fun," says Dennis.

In the Sound area, visitors can play a harp made of laser beams (Dennis says interrupting the beams with a comb rather than your fingers produces the best effect) or play a pipe organ made of PVC pipes. "We use a lot of materials in ways that the manufacturer didnít intend," Dennis explains, unnecessarily.

Finally, we end up at the digital drums, which allow visitors to choose the sound the drums will make - various instruments, waterfalls and surf, animal noises. Georg records his own voice saying "ouch," and then plays a symphony in ouch, with different pitches and speeds.

I could play with these drums myself for an hour, but we are distracting the rest of the staff, and anyway, itís time to go. Iíll be back soon with my family.

The new Exploration Stations are a part of the continuing mission of the to make science more accessible, and to illuminate the mysteries of the world, whether we normally view things through the lens of science or not. Making goofy animated cartoons, fooling around with ball trajectories, and controlling the current in a small river help you grasp the way the real world works, although you may not be immediately tested on your new knowledge.

Science is not a game, after all, but that doesnít mean you canít have fun with it.

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