Hands on

May 29, 2004|By Karen Hosler

A SMALL STACK of slides already made up sat invitingly on the table next to a microscope. Feathers, colored newspaper comics, stuff like that. Anthony Olivares slid a few of them under the lens one by one, but quickly grew bored. He wanted to create a slide of his own.

He started by pulling out strands of his coal black hair. He fumbled at his T-shirt for loose threads. Then, suddenly inspired, he ripped off a piece of fingernail and stuck it on a slide. A multidimensional complex of straight lines, circles and other odd shapes was projected on the screen in front of him. It was way cooler than hair.

"Look," he exclaimed. "You can see the cells!"

This 12-year-old from Houston could be the poster boy for the 40,000-square-foot, $35 million expansion and renovation of the Maryland Science Center that opens to the public this weekend.

Anthony doesn't yet know what sort of job he'd like to have when he grows up, but his favorite subject in school is science, and he was enthralled with every exhibit he came across during a preview tour of the refurbished museum this week.

"I like to discover things," he explained.

His is the sort of young mind the science center staff is after, hoping to awaken, engage, excite and enthrall him -- and ultimately entice him into a scientific career.

This pursuit isn't about seeking acolytes; it could be considered a national security mission. America is losing its premier position in scientific achievement and innovation. Students with strong math and science skills are on the wane. Too few choose to become researchers and engineers.

To make subjects such as physics, biology and earth science interesting, the exhibits were mostly designed as something to do rather than something to see: walk through a beating heart, lie on a bed of nails, chisel the dirt off a dinosaur bone, create a DNA sample, sit in a chair and raise it up with the help of pulleys.

"I like this because you get to do something," said Chelsie Shirley, 12, of Athens, Ala., who with her three sisters spent an especially long time yanking themselves up with chairs hooked to pulleys. "You learn something, and it's fun."

Later, the girls took turns pedaling a bicycle to produce electricity that would power a light bulb and a fan.

Her visit to the 28-year-old science center was something of a nostalgia trip for Chelsie's mother, Rachel, 31, who grew up in Glen Burnie, and wanted to bring her family to places she remembered fondly as a child. An Orioles game a few blocks away from the harborside museum would be next on the agenda.

Two years in the making, and relying heavily on private as well as public funds, the science center upgrade is being unveiled amid grateful bows to the generous donors who made it possible.

The center's success may depend just as heavily, though, on people like Adam and Amanda Everhardt of Catonsville, who were given a family membership in the science center as a Christmas gift. That not only drew them back to the museum both had visited as children during the 1980s, but entitled them to bring 8-year-old Victor to preview the new exhibits.

"I really like the whole touchy-feely aspect of it," Mr. Everhardt said. "It's so much better than just reading things or having people talk to you."

But none of this kid appeal -- including digestive noises guaranteed for giggles -- can inspire budding young scientists unless they are exposed to it.

So take a break from the mall, the movies, the ballfield and the beach to let the youngsters in your life explore these wonders. Their future -- and ours -- may depend on it.

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