It has been too long since I last visited the Buffalo Museum of Science, so I was pleased to join museum President and CEO Mark Mortenson on an early summer morning tour of the newest gallery. The excuse for my visit was the opening of this third of the eight planned permanent interactive science studios. It is titled In Motion. Two others, Explore You and Our Marvelous Earth, are already active, and Invertebrates, Culture, Biodiversity, Extinction and Space are to come.
There are seven stations in the In Motion gallery. I’ll describe my experience at each of them:
Crash Test Simulator: You’ve probably seen those videos of test cars smashing into obstructions to test the value of seat belts and air bags. Here is a real Calspan-crashed car showing in vivid detail the serious effects of even a slow-moving accident.
This is, of course, a good example of an old-style museum exhibit. It is certainly interesting to see such a real result, but my experience is simply looking at it. But there’s more to this exhibit: I design a test of my own and watch a video of an experiment that carries out my chosen test. Now I am participating.
Gravity Machine: This is a large, magnetized wall with various devices that can be affixed to it. I watch as an 8-year-old boy places a ball into a tube and it is forced by air pressure up to the top of the display. This part of the exhibit is like those pneumatic tubes through which you send your funds at a bank drive-through window.
From there the ball enters a series of curved tubes, stairways and spirals that the boy and several other children mount until the ball is stopped. That obstruction is fixed by another child, and a new trial takes the ball down to the tray at the bottom.
Gears and Pulleys: Remember how Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” is run in among the gears and pulleys of a big machine? Here I fix several big and small pulleys and a rubber belt to a wall, making a similar machine. Then I set them in motion and watch the difference in the turning rates of the individual pulleys.
All I can think as I make some changes in the gears is, “I wish I had this when I studied levers, gear ratios and mechanical advantage in my seventh-grade science class.” Instead we had to rely on pictures in a textbook. This exhibit makes those direct and inverse ratios come alive.
Car Race: I watch a father and son build racing cars from parts in a bin. Then they place their cars at the beginning of a 20-foot track. The youngster presses a level and off go the cars up and down the track hills. At the finish line, the time is posted. The father’s car wins this time and they both head back to improve their design for another run.
Air Table: Children are choosing various objects to hold above a source of forced air. Some simply blow away, but others that are symmetrically designed remain – like magic – held in the air stream.
Fluid Dynamics Simulator: This is a screen that models flowing liquid. At first the lines running across the screen are all horizontal, but when a young girl places a square object in the flow, we watch the lines curve around that object. She experiments with other shapes.
Human Motion: I laugh as a child walks in front of a screen and his motion is then recorded in a display. He sees me and suggests that I try it. Now he has an opportunity to laugh.
These new stations certainly enhance a museum visit and should draw many families back for more. Once these eight studios are in place, Mortenson hopes through additional funding to re-establish the museum’s curatorial staff to support the research leadership that is important to balance these attractive activities.