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OC HIGH: NEWS AND VIEWS : New Museums Are More Than Dioramas and Stuffed Dinosaurs : Education: Centers for learning, including one proposed for Santa Ana in 1997, include plenty of hands-on exhibits.

August 26, 1994|GREG DALTON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Museums and learning centers around the country are trying to turn students on to science by encouraging them to touch, grab and yank the exhibits.

In the early 1970s there were about 20 facilities with interactive exhibits primarily for science education, including the acclaimed Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Today there are more than 280 such user-friendly science centers and another 40 on the way, mostly outside major metropolitan areas.

(Among the proposed new centers: A Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana that would cost about $19 million to build and is expected to draw more than 600,000 visitors annually. Proposed for opening in 1997, the center would include 76,000 square feet of interactive science exhibits and an IMAX theater.)

"The big cities have usually had one for a number of years," says Ellen Griffee, spokeswoman for the Assn. of Science-Technology Centers. "And now mid-size cities are saying 'we need one, too.' "

The Science Imaginarium in Waterloo, Iowa, is one recently established museum. Others include Headwaters Science Center in Bemidgi, Minn., and Science Spectrum in Lubbock, Tex.

But the trend doesn't stop in Lubbock. India and other countries are also discovering less traditional science museums.

"It is the fastest kind of museum growth in the world," says Alan J. Friedman, a board member of the association and director of the New York Hall of Science.

At the New York museum, fun is the name of the game, and visitors don't have to memorize any scientific names--though plenty of them are available.

Visitors can gain a subtle appreciation for scientific principles by playing with interactive exhibits such as a 400-pound pendulum or a hoop for making bubbles big enough to swallow a person.

"The exhibits are props to be used in learning experiences, controlled or not," Friedman says.

A visit to the lively museum, originally built for the 1964-65 World's Fair, doesn't necessarily offer "a specific fact or curriculum you can learn and master the rules of nature," he explains.

"The rules you learn to make (the exhibits) work are nature's rules. You will get a sense that there are rules in nature," he says enthusiastically. "Later, you'll learn the names of the rules."

The newest exhibit at the user-friendly museum is "SoundSensations: The Inside Story of Audio."

The most innovative of the dozen or so interactive displays, "Singing Shadows: An Artist's Piece by Ron Kuivila," is a dark room in which beams of light are focused on three translucent panels.

Visitors can become part of an ensemble by walking or dancing in the light, which is recorded by video cameras linked to a synthesizer that produces synchronistic sound. Though they are not given a scientific explanation of what is happening, kids get a sense of the connection between light, movement and sound, relationships at the heart of audio technology.

Another nearby display, "Vocal Variety: An Artist's Piece by Paul DeMarinis," is a phone booth equipped with 12 different sound effects to transform your voice, while you watch a visual trace of both your normal and your distorted voice on a video monitor.

Press the "Monotone" button and you sound like political adviser Mary Matalin.

Touch the "Whisper" button and you sound like John Malkovich talking to Clint Eastwood in the movie "In the Line of Fire."

Hit "Regular" and you are yourself.

That's cute, but skeptics may wonder how much of this translates into measurable results.

Friedman says a recent study indicates people often cite museums as their reason for becoming scientists, something this country needs.

And for those who don't make science their life, Friedman and his colleagues have a very simple goal.

"We know people are afraid of science. Our goal is to give them both the ambition and the confidence to learn."

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