The words "Invisible Forces" blink in fluorescent white and blue neon at the entrance to a new exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry. In the entryway, a wormlike electric current sputters its way up two antennas.
"It used to be referred to as Jacob's ladder by scientists, but it's more commonly associated with the apparatus in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory," said John Sirugo, educational director for Southern California Edison Co., which is sponsoring the month-old exhibit on electricity and magnetism.
"When the current climbs all the way to the top, watch what happens," Sirugo said.
The charge crackled as it inched upward but snuffed itself out before reaching the top. Finally, after several more tries, it lit a neon lightning bolt atop the display.
'A Visual Hook'
The Jacob's ladder phenomenon, Sirugo said, is not a crucial educational feature of "Invisible Forces." But it has its purpose. "In fact," Sirugo said, "the Frankenstein part of the exhibit is just a visual hook."
A hook is what museum officials have found in the exhibit, which has become a permanent feature of the facility in Exposition Park. Worried about the increasing "science illiteracy" of America's students and convinced that conventional science exhibits are ignored by many of the 100,000 children who flock to the museum each year, planners designed "Invisible Forces" with a surplus of crank handles, clanking parts and visual displays to lure children of the TV age.
"It's a hands-on exhibit, where children feel and see and hear some of the abstract science principles they are exposed to in school," Sirugo said.
Children are not the only ones responding with enthusiasm to the exhibit. Thirty- and 40-year-old museum officials and Edison representatives were gripped by youthful exuberance during a recent tour.
Edison representative Paul Klien, standing under a "Generate Energy" sign, huffed as he pulled at a revolving rail that powers a multi-tiered light display. "If you go fast, the top ring lights up," Klien said, panting. Unable to light the top ring, he added: "It's better when you get more people to help."
There are displays and models designed to teach elementary school children about basic electrical and magnetic principles, "the kind of things that develop intuitive notions about electricity," Sirugo said.
The planners of "Invisible Forces" decided that more staid exhibits, with their glass-encased stations and rarely read explanation panels, were not impressing visitors. After taking informal tallies on the time visitors spent at each display, museum officials concluded that interactive exhibits were the way to captivate young students.
"It's not that they were bored with the noninteractive type displays. It's more that they just would not notice them," museum curator Eugene Harrison said.
Designers of the exhibit hoped that the new playground feel of the exhibit would provide a "sensory intrigue" to children, drawing them out of a world of video games and television and into the museum.
They appear to have succeeded.
"It's like the same thing at Chuck E. Cheese," said Tia Lewis, 9, a fourth-grader at Van Alden Elementary School in Reseda, referring to the pizza and video parlor chain. "But here you learn things."
"It's better than when you read about it in books," said Brian Sanchez, 9, also from Van Alden. His favorite display is an enlarged version of an electrical circuit.
Joo Kang, 10, a fourth-grader at Nestle Avenue Elementary in Tarzana, prefers the museum to "school where they make you sit down and be quiet. I feel free because I can run around and see everything."
While the exhibit is designed to entertain, it also tries to strengthen children's basic knowledge of science. " 'Invisible Forces' is just a start along the road to scientific literacy," Sirugo said.
Sirugo cited a 1985 Science magazine survey--in which adults in 48 states were asked the question, "What is DNA?"--as a source of worry. Just 2% of respondents gave the accurate answer--the chromosome material in cell nuclei that transmits hereditary patterns. Another 27% gave a partial definition, while 63% responded "don't know" and 2% replied, "It's a poison."
"The problem goes back to the lack of science instruction at an early age," Sirugo said. "If you fail to get the students interested while they are young, you've lost them for good."
That requires exhibits that stimulate the senses. Or in the words of Edison representative Klien, "You've got to have good sounds."
An exhibit featuring a crane that picks up marble-sized ball bearings with an electromagnet and then drops them--loudly--appeared to do the trick, drawing stares from a group of 20 visitors milling in the exhibit room.
Nearby, Bridgette Bass watched as her 8-year-old daughter, Tiffany, hung sideways from a handle on the side of a 50-foot-long model depicting electron flow.
"You know what you're doing?" Bass asked her daughter.