A low-tech 60 minutes to mark Earth Hour

Md. Science Center runs two exhibitions gadget-free

March 26, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts

The Baltimore Sun

She held a magnifying glass in each hand, lining one up behind the other and squinting hard to see through.

Kelly Schaefer, 10, of Sterling, Va., couldn't quite make out what was in the tiny picture mounted on the wall several feet away.

"Try moving the lenses closer together or farther apart," said Brian Turkett, a member of the education department at the Maryland Science Center.

"It's a galaxy!" she cried as an image came into focus.

It was 3:30 Saturday afternoon, halfway through the museum's unique celebration of Earth Hour 2011, the occasion on which millions around the globe were to make a statement about energy use by turning off all non-essential lights between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

The museum would be closed by then, as usual, so staffers decided to fashion their own version of the event: Between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., they shut down computers and most other electronic gadgets at two of their most popular installations, TerraLink and SpaceLink, treating kids to interactive experiences that used almost no electricity, taught respect for the environment and invited questions about forms of energy they might not have thought about before.

"These aren't TV or video games. We're trying to make people aware of things they can do at home," said Felicia Savage, manager of TerraLink, a permanent earth science exhibition, "and showing how scientific [inquiry] can work without burning fossil fuels."

At SpaceLink, Kelly and her brother Alex, 7, learned you can make a telescope simply by holding up and adjusting the distance between two glass lenses (the heavier of the two becomes the eyepiece, Turkett told them).

As Turkett shut down the 10 computers that normally run the exhibit's high-tech displays, about 20 children, most around the Schaefers' ages, tried the telescope experiment. (None seemed to mind that organizers had fashioned handles for the lenses from cardboard tubes.)

During the hour, Savage — who had turned off TerraLink's seven computers — used strips of translucent blue plastic to show more than 30 kids how the world looks to underwater animals, adding more layers of strips to represent deeper water.

Two simple suction cups Savage pressed together proved nearly impossible to pull apart — an illustration of the substantial air pressure that surrounds us at all times but that we're rarely aware of.

"I purposely picked water and air as subjects," Savage said, "since they're resources we need and use but rarely think about."

A few feet away, another museum educator, David Fullerton, used models to show his charges that unlike fossil fuels, some sources of energy (sun, wind) are unlimited in supply.

Savage said her crowd might have been even bigger were it not for a third component of Earth Hour: In the planetarium upstairs, an astronomer was using the hour to show visitors the constellations they would see in the sky later that night if they turned off their lights at home.

Computer terminals in the exhibitions were dark for the 60 minutes, each one flanked by a sign: "This computer has been turned off while we observe Earth Hour. Electricity would normally release half a pound of CO2 into the atmosphere."

By turning off the 17 computers, the museum prevented 81/2 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. Few seemed to miss the relative absence of power.

"Can you tell me one thing you've learned?" Turkett asked Kelly.

"The bigger lens has the smaller focal length, and it belongs in the back," she said, naming two.

"I'm really into science," she added.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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