Friday, May 9, 2008

Design for Fun -- The Needham Science Center

The Needham Science Center is an absolutely ridiculous place full of well-designed educational materials. According to the email that I sent out to some students, the Needham Science Center has "a life-sized model of a whale, over thirty live animals, fantastic demonstrations that have been around since the 1960’s, a severed crocodile head that they found in a bottle of formaldehyde (which they unfortunately had to get rid of), and mysterious boxes stacked to the ceiling full of ridiculously awesome stuff that need to be sorted through!"

What the Needham Science Center actually does is travel around to all the elementary schools in Needham and give demonstrations and teach lessons for the kids. It's been around since the 1960's, and it was actually going to get closed down a few years ago. The parents in the area then raised over $200,000 in six weeks to keep the place open.

The things I mentioned earlier are pretty awesome. But that's not the half of it -- I forgot to mention the hundreds of animal skulls, the thousands of books, the dozens of Rube Goldburg machines, and the plethora of dead animals including numerous dead birds, tons of dead dear and moose, a number of dead deadly cats, a pair of dead polar bears, and one dead sea otter. The pictures don't do them justice. It's a lot of dead animals!

The live animals include a doves, rats, frogs, toads, snakes, owls, madagascar hissing cockroaches, crickets, a tarantula, turtles, lizards, a ferret, a chinchilla, and more. They told me that they used to have over eighty live animals, but that they had to cut back because they just didn't have the personnel to take care of them.

There are dozens of neat displays packed in the basement. For example, there are optics demonstrations for your arm disappearing, an intangible quarter floating in the air, a ferret changing color before your eyes, and a head floating in midair. There are fantastic contraptions demonstrating electricity and magnetism as well. For instance, there is a bike that you can ride to power a light bulb and a Van de Graff generator that's five feet tall.

One cool display was about bird calls. Stepping on the pedal lightly would light up the picture of a bird. Stepping on the pedal hard, a mechanical contraption would produce the sound of that bird!

When we went to help out today, we sorted thousands of rocks. Opening a random box, we'd find things like a chunk of topaz, labled "8" signifying its Moh's hardnesss. Or we'd find a well-sealed capsule containing a block of fibrous rock labeled "asbestos". You just never know what sort of crazy stuff you'd find in there!

All of the large displays in the science center are hand-built. A lot of the stuff is made of wood, nailed together, and spray-painted. There's a pretty nice toolshop in the basement for putting everything together. There's a vertical bandsaw, a drill press, and hundreds of hand tools. There are plenty of wires, switches, battery holders, circuit elements,lightbulbs, and the like for adding any electrical components. It really makes you think about the types of crazy people who built all that stuff over the years, and what they had in mind when they were designing it. Although most of the stuff is either rusting, chipping, rotting away by now, when you wipe off the dust and give it a go, most of the stuff still works. And for the stuff that doesn't work, if you look at the circuit and replace a part it'll usually come to life.

I can easily see how the resources in the Needham Science center can be used to intrigue, enlighten, and entertain the young minds of the children around here. The people who put there heart into these displays simply knew what they were designing for. They designed things that were educational, and they designed things that were fun. Educational and fun, fun and educational, thats what the Needham Science Center is about!

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