Set your sights on science centers Sci high: In cities all over the United States, you can visit museums where exhibits are hands-on and learning is fun.

Taking the Kids

January 21, 1996|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Quick. Name one place that's guaranteed to appeal to a 12-year-old as much as a preschooler. Where Mom and Dad won't get bored and even Grandpa will have a good time. And they might learn something, too.

Here's another clue: This is one destination that works as well when the weather's bad as good. It's not a budget buster; admission costs less than lunch.

If you think no such place could exist in '90s America, you haven't dropped in at a science center when you've been on vacation lately. They're all over the place these days, in major natural-history museums and in regional children's museums in Indianapolis and San Jose, Calif., as well as in inviting buildings of their own in cities like Baltimore.

Large or small, all 290 science centers in the United States -- the number has more than doubled in the last decade, according to the international Association of Science-Technology Centers -- have one thing in common: They're hands-on and inquiry-based.

"That means you need to come prepared to roll up your sleeves and get involved playing with science as much as the kids," explains Greg DeFrancis, education coordinator of the respected Montshire Science Museum in Norwich, Vt., and a member of the Association of Science-Technology Centers' (ASTC) education committee.

There are buttons to push, computers to use, mirrors to move and giant bubbles to make. There are bugs to watch and fossils to touch. Come March, children as young as 5 can learn how we can protect ourselves from AIDS as part of the new "What about AIDS?" exhibit at San Francisco's Exploratorium.

Kids can pretend to be worms, crawling underground at the Indianapolis Children's Museum's new Scienceworks Gallery, also set to open this coming spring. Those visiting the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, meanwhile, can experience an earthquake.

(For a list of science centers around the country and "Ten Tips for Visiting a Science Center" write ASTC-Department KD, 1025 Vermont Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005. To locate science centers via the Internet, go to the ASTC Web Site at and select the Science Center Travel Guide. If you're a member of your local science center, many other science museums will allow you to visit free.)

If the kids are reluctant museum-goers, "Just drop in for an hour before lunch," suggests Montshire Museum's Mr. DeFrancis.

Here are some things to try: How about a quick game of virtual basketball at Seattle's Pacific Science Center's Tech Zone? Put on the game glove; move your arm, and the on-screen ball moves with it. Try beating a 10-foot robot at tick-tack-toe (we lost) or shooting the huge water cannons at targets in the fountains outside (we won).

The newest exhibit opens Friday and runs through May: Big Big Bugs. Giant robotic insects -- some up to 12 feet tall -- live in huge versions of their natural habitats. Don't miss the Live Bug Zoo. Want to shake a cockroach's leg? (Call the Pacific Science Center at [206] 443-2001.)

In the New York area, visit the spectacular 70,000-square foot Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center. Check out the pink-toed tarantulas in the Bug Zoo or try the rock-climbing wall. Next month, an exhibit will focus on "Black Achievers in Science." (Call the LSC at [201] 200-1000.)

If you're traveling in Montana this summer and have some dino lovers in the back of the van, plan a stop at the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman. Here's the place to learn how mountains were formed, try out an interactive space station and take a giant step back 80 million years to when dinosaurs nested near Choteau. See the baby fossils that were discovered there and learn more about how these creatures lived and how their nests were discovered. The exhibit is small enough for even young kids to wander freely. (Call the museum at [406] 994-2251.)

Take time out from the beach and amusement parks around Los Angeles to see what many kids think is L.A.'s best science museum: the George C. Page Museum of Tar Pit Discoveries. This is the spot where huge mammoths, fierce saber-toothed cats, packs of wolves and scores of birds became trapped in sticky tar pits and died. Four million fossils, some 40,000 years old, have been discovered here. For two months each summer, parents and kids can see the continuing excavation, while inside the museum they can watch scientists prepare and study the newly found fossils. (Call the museum, a branch of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, at [213] 857-6311.)

Closer to home, the Maryland Science Center at 601 Light St. has an IMAX theater featuring movies such as "Mystery of the Maya" and "Seasons," which opened this week and continues through mid-May 1996. The theater adds to the museum experience, which also includes hands-on learning exhibits.

Remember, don't try to explore the entire place, wherever you visit. Let the kids spend two hours rolling balls down a ramp or feeling a dinosaur bone.

One last word: Let the kids lead the way. "Scientific breakthroughs start when somebody sees the world in a different way," observes Ellen Griffee, director of the Association of Science-Technology Centers.

That could be your 4-year-old.

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