One could be forgiven for walking into the Sciencenter for the first time and wondering if he or she had taken a wrong turn on the way to the museum. Signs urging “Quiet, Please” and “Hands Off” are nowhere to be found, and not a single exhibit hides behind a velvet rope.
“Kids who do science for themselves, know it for themselves. The Sciencenter is at the forefront of a national movement to help kids do science,” says television’s Bill Nye, The Science Guy. Looking around the Ithaca museum, it would be hard to argue. Every time you turn around, another wide-eyed tot is running to the giant camera or the water flume. And, unlike most other museums, parents are often not far behind, with very similar looks on their faces.
“It’s fun for everyone,” said Mike Katz, the director of marketing and development at the Sciencenter. “Kids can have fun, there are things to play with, but adults have almost as much fun interacting with their kids. You don’t just drop your kids off and leave, and you also don’t let them run around while you just sit.”
What started almost 20 years ago with Debbie Levin and Ilma Levine on the road going from school to school with science experiments and educational hands-on activities has grown to become one of the few science museums in New York accredited by the American Association of Museums. But don’t tell your kids that (not that you’ll get a chance to).
“My kids have come several times. The first couple of times they were just playing, but by the third time I heard ‘Hey, Dad, look at this!’ It’s the same exhibit, but they’re saying ‘Wow, now I know how this works.’ They might not understand all the physics, but they’ve figured out that if they put their hand here something happens, or if they turn this, something else happens,” said Mike. “It’s that cause and effect, that excitement for learning that we want all ages to experience, but especially the younger kids.”
On the first floor of the museum, several children stand looking up at a beach ball suspended in midair by a flow of air. A young girl holds her dad’s hand as she cautiously approaches the ant farms. A toddler gets a close-up look at his grandfather’s leather watchband on the electronic microscope. Nearby, several children crowd around the watergates, a study in fluid mechanics, water flow, and hydraulics. They place little yellow ducks in the top and watch as different obstacles and passages along the way slow or speed their duck’s progression.
The exhibit was built by a Cornell University class, whose campus sits nearby. Both Cornell and Ithaca College are active in the Sciencenter. “We do a lot of programs where volunteers from both schools will come here and get experiments to take to the community centers or to take to local schools. Cornell Tradition (a university volunteer group) sends us 15 to 20 students a year who will take our experiments to organizations downtown. It’s part of their outreach to the community through us,” said Mike.
Outside the doors of the building sits the outdoor science park, a giant playground where children can relax on the swings or talk to each other through the giant “whisper dishes,” where they harness sound energy through parabolic reflectors.
If you want to get the whole experience, begin your journey on the Ithaca Commons, where the Sagan Planet Walk begins. A memorial to renowned astronomer and Ithaca resident Carl Sagan, the Planet Walk begins with the Sun in the center of Ithaca, and ends with Pluto right outside the Sciencenter. Along the 3/4-mile route, the planets are placed to scale to give an idea of the vastness of the solar system.
Two stories of mesmerizing science (yes, those two words can be used together) and a giant playground not enough for you? By Christmas, the Sciencenter will triple in size, as workers work to complete the giant addition being built on the museum. Among the planned additions is an early childhood area, completely devoted to children under 5, with a whole new water table and other things just for toddlers. “We’ve had researchers travel the country looking at children’s museums, science museums, looking at what are the best things for the kids so when it opens it’ll be state-of-the-art early childhood education with hands-on science. We really spent a lot of time and effort trying to bring things in that they can play with and learn from,” said Mike proudly. “If you like this little museum now, wait until we’re 20,000 square feet in another six weeks or so!”
Also planned for the new space is a 100-seat amphitheater which will provide a place for demonstrations and presentations. A community room, open after hours to community groups, will serve as a lunchroom during the day. A classroom will allow more intensive learning, while a discovery room will let children work more quietly on different individual experiments, as well as create their own. A technology clubhouse will allow for supervised free access to computers and let children work with mentors on projects, homework, and websites. New exhibits will include hot air balloons and a live animal room, where a boa constrictor will be making a return to the Sciencenter, along with other animals that families can see and touch.
So, if you’re looking for an educational trip that your kids won’t mind spending an entire day on, give the Sciencenter a try. You’ll find that all the money they saved on velvet ropes and stuffy signs has been put to good use.
For more information, call (607) 272-0600, or visit www.sciencenter.org.
by Nate Abbott
Nate Abbott is a product of the Finger Lakes, born in Geneva and currently majoring in English at Cornell University in Ithaca.