Weird Science

When you're 9, it's hard not to love dinosaurs, a bed of nails and all those rude bodily noises

Science & Technology

May 23, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Cool.

That's what four kids at Federal Hill Preparatory School said when they learned they could leave school for a few hours last week for a sneak preview of the newly expanded Maryland Science Center. It would not be their last "cool" of the day.

Fourth-graders Sydney Spann and Matt Ekey, both 9, and third-graders David Clark, 9, and Dominique Willis, 8, are what you might call budding science geeks. What better focus group, we thought, for a shakedown tour of the newly renovated (but still unfinished) science center, which opens Friday after spending $35 million and adding 40,000 square feet of new exhibits aimed precisely at kids their age.

It was, admittedly, an unscientific experiment, but our notes say it went something like this:

Once inside the science center, we don hard hats for a tour of what is still a construction zone. The new exhibit space comes with a spectacular harbor view. The reaction from the ledge above Dinosaur Hall: Cool.

First stop: A life-sized plaster cast of dinosaur footprints. "One of them stepped on the other's foot," Matt notes. They are sitting inside the plaster casts of dinosaur prints, some as big as they are, when David picks up a shiny object. "I don't think they stepped on screws," he says.

No, by Friday when the new wing opens, the screws will be gone, along with the unshaven, sleepy looking sculptor, Hall Train of Toronto, who was busy applying a finish to the base of the Astrodon johnstoni, the official dinosaur of Maryland.

The kids stop to dig for bones at a couple of sites. A part of a bone sticks out. This is where they can be paleontologists. Next to the hands-on digging is a mass of bones buried in rock. They try to identify the dinosaur parts and then some: Matt spots the bones of an alligator and a turtle. Next they use some charts to try to spot clues to the bones in a piece of sediment. There's a tooth in this rock. Did it belong to a vegetarian?

Amid the ancient tableau, saws are sawing. Drills are drilling. The smell of glue and new carpet fills the air as they pass a case with real dinosaur fossils, some as thin as human hair. Ooooh, they say. They have climbed into a 7-foot dinosaur nest when David critiques the basketball-sized eggs. He thinks they should be bigger, he says to the curator.

"It's a good thing you didn't accidentally get any real eggs so they won't hatch and wreak havoc on her," he says, pointing to Dominique.

The kids are impressed with the 40-foot-long T. rex, which is suspended from the ceiling. But more impressive is the chance to put their faces inside a T. rex mug to see the world from a dinosaur's point of view.

"I'm big," says Dominique.

`Ewwww' is the word

Dr. Roberta Cooks, senior director of exhibits, guides the kids around sawhorses and wheelbarrows and other construction hazards downstairs to the new Your Body: The Inside Story exhibit. "Ewwww!" says David as he comes face to face with the inside of a giant, beating heart. The sound of it pumping makes you feel like you are inside it. How do they take those pictures? David wants to know. How do they get inside the heart to see it working?

There will be more shouts of disgust, screaming and ewwwws here than anywhere in the new exhibit space.

At one point, the kids find themselves looking into a wall-size revolving bull's-eye. The more they stare, they are told, the more tired their brain receptors get. So what happens when they turn away to look at a photograph of a boy on a nearby wall? "He's getting bigger!" Matt shouts, almost fearfully.

A few feet away, they gather to test a bed made from hundreds of nails.

"I'm not trying it," Sydney announces. No way. Matt goes first, positions himself and squeezes the hand-held starter that lifts the nails under him. "Here I go!" he says as three-inch sharp steel pieces aim for his backside. "Cool. That feels great," he says. Pressure and pain are controlled by the same nerve endings, the kids discover. Dr. Cooks tells them it would hurt a lot if they were to lie on a single nail. Sydney finally gives the bed a try, and is rewarded: "Oh, that feels weird. It feels good. Like a massage."

A section on digestion garners the longest ewwwwwwwws. By now these kids are in full gear, pleased to have the Science Center to themselves and pushing every button they can to see how the body moves. A main attraction: A screen that shows what happens to macaroni and cheese after you eat it.

"Disgusting!" says Dominique.

Yet, over and over, they run this video. The kid on the screen takes the food, eats it and the digested food moves though the body until it looks entirely foreign. By now, three of four kids are gathered to watch what looks to be yellow bile. Even their adult companion is now saying ewwwwwww.

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