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RECREATION

LAUNCH PAD : Spoonful of Science : Mini-Museum Gives Children a Fun but Educational Introduction to the Basics of Physics and Technology

September 22, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — "This is what it means," said John Fraser, all of 6. "You squeeze this thing, and it makes your heart beat faster. Then you can see the blood going into the bottle . . . "

Uh-huh. You mean your heart beats faster and that's your blood in the bottle?

"No, that's dumb," he explained, not all that patiently. "This is make-believe. Didn't you know that?"

The fidgety boy, who lives with his mother, April, in Santa Ana, may not have fully grasped the "heart-as-muscle" exhibit at the Launch Pad mini-museum, but he understood it well enough. As John continued to grip the handle designed to simulate the heart's contractions, he sighed and said, "Your heart must get pretty tired."

The point was made: The heart is an amazing organ, the strongest part of the body. Score another little science victory for the Launch Pad.

The Pad, incongruously situated on the third floor of South Coast Plaza's Crystal Court, is a nonprofit, hands-on venture aimed at introducing youngsters to the basics of science. The more than 30 exhibits, most interactive and with an element of play, provide insight into physics and technology.

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As John confirmed, most of the demonstrations are fun, science going down with a spoonful of sugar. But the Pad tries to add to its recreational side by also bringing in entertainers adept at combining learning with amusement.

Mr. Electricity, otherwise known as Robert Krampf, recently performed feats that informed kids about energy. A return engagement is planned for the near future, but until then, the Pad has scheduled a "Bubble Festival" featuring "bubbleologist" Tom Noddy for Oct. 23 and 24. Noddy, who has appeared on "The Tonight Show," uses bubbles formed into various shapes, even squares, to demonstrate scientific principles.

On Nov. 27 and 28, "yo-yo expert" Daniel Volk will perform tricks intended to help children understand "kinetic energy and centrifugal force."

The focus shifts to animals on Dec. 28 and 29, when Terry Minko, the Lizard Wizard, brings an assortment of spiders, snakes, tortoises and frogs to the Pad.

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All the permanent features and regular guests make the Pad, a good place for parents and children to come anytime, administrators say, especially during fall when it's rainy or gloomy outside. It can also be a nice side trip after an afternoon of mall cruising.

"We see it as an ideal combination of instruction and pleasure," said Karen Johnson, the executive director of the Launch Pad and the future Discovery Science Center planned to be built in Santa Ana by mid-1996.

The Center will be a three-story, nearly-90,000-square-foot facility devoted to hands-on exhibits primarily for children. The county's only IMAX Theater is also set for the site.

The Pad, at only about 5,600 square feet, is something of a preview, a peek at what the Center is all about.

While the Pad encourages visitors of all ages, Johnson did stress one rule: It doesn't double as a nursery. She said children can't be left behind while mom checks out that new dress or dad visits the sports shop. Parents and their offspring are suppose to interact, both with the exhibits and each other.

"No, we can't have it become a baby-sitting facility, partly because of the liability factor" if someone were hurt, she explained. "Our staff doesn't have the time, either. But the main reason is (we hope)that families should enjoy this together. (Much of the fun)comes from parents helping to explain what they're experiencing to their kids."

On a good day, the Pad can have as many as 400 visitors (an average day is between 30 and 100), Johnson said.

The steady traffic has given its assistant director, Robert Casaba, an opportunity to see which features most attract children.

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One favorite is a spinning wheel. The idea, Casaba said, is to show "angular momentum" by having kids stick out a leg or arm to see how that affects their rotations, but they tend to use it as a personal-sized carousel.

"They just love to go fast on it," he said. "Around and around and around. It makes you dizzy just watching."

The "bubble wall" is also popular. By lifting a long rod from a basin of soapy water, a surface is created that children can blow into, creating huge bubble shapes. There's a principle at work--that air has mass and can affect objects--but youngsters tend to be fascinated by the shifting contours.

Other exhibits feature state-of-the-art holograms, a "bottled lightning" display where electricity is suspended in gases, tubes with descending billiard balls to demonstrate different fluid viscosity and even a pitching cage that measures ball speed.

"That has to be the one everyone goes to," Casaba said. "The record is 66 m.p.h. I've thrown 64 before."

A disappointed look followed Jennifer Salazar's toss of 19 m.p.h.

"That's all?" the 9-year-old from Costa Mesa said as her brother, Herman, pushed at her, laughing hard.

"My turn! My turn!" he shouted. Herman, 11, wound up and let the plastic ball go. It thunked against the target, and Herman waited for the figures. Only 26 m.p.h.

"Not so good," Jennifer chided as her brother wound up again. She didn't stick around, though. There was something else around the corner she wanted to check out.

"Look at this monkey!" Jennifer yelled, staring at a hologram of an ape, its three-dimensional form seeming to move as she shifted her position. "That is so cool."

Information

The Launch Pad, at 3333 Bear St., is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $5 per child (ages 3-12); accompanying adult free. Information: (714) 546-2061.

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