Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 23  |  Friday, March 24, 2000  |  Number 6
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Bigger Than Life
Backyard monsters offer bug's-eye view of science at SciTech

by Mike Perricone

While you read this story, do not think about bugs. Especially big bugs.

Do not think about a praying mantis with the tree-top reach of a giraffe; or a shiny, black, horned beetle as big as a shiny, black VW Beetle; or ants that could demolish your doors in a single chomp; or a scorpion that could hold off a SWAT squadóall with exoskeletons as invulnerable as welded steel plates.

If you run into any of these backyard monsters at SciTech, the Science and Technology Interactive Center in Aurora's old Post Office building, definitely do not think about the possibility of stepping on one of them. Just make sure they do not step on you.

By now, of course, you've guessed that the bugs aren't real. The company that spawned these pneumatically operated animatronic creations, Creative Presentations of Valencia, California, had its own start creating special effects for the movie industry before shifting focus to museum displays.

At SciTech through May 15, these backyard monsters are themselves intended to shift your focus: from the imposing oversized forms, to the hands-on interactives such as Robo-Bug, the robotic demonstration of how a six-legged creature walks; and then on to the detailed displays of insect specimens. It's a step-by-step process described as "hands-on, minds-on, brains-on," by the museum's executive director, Ronen Mir.

"We're trying to give the kids a facility that will help them engulf themselves in the process," said Mir, named director in May 1999. "We want them to get into the process wholeheartedly, to spend a longer time at each exhibit, to get into a subject in greater depth. We try to be a catalyst, to show the fun of science and relate it to daily life."

The daily life of SciTech, and of these giant steel-and-fiberglass visitors running on 65 pounds per square inch of air pressure, revolves around a core of dedicated volunteers. Many are directly or secondarily connected with Fermilab, which has enjoyed a close association with the museum since SciTech was founded.

Mary Lynn Johnson (her husband, Todd, is an operations specialist in the lab's Main Control Room) has volunteered since 1988. She worked on assembling the well-traveled animatronic bugs (their road shows have included Chicago's Field Museum), and she keeps them maintained: giving the mantis a facelift, fixing the actuating cylinder for the scorpion's claw, putting new wings on the poodle-sized fly snared by a spider that could free-lance as construction equipment.

"Some of the internal parts are delicate," she revealed, "but for the most part these things are bulletproof. They're built to last thousands and thousands of cycles."

Mary Lynn and Todd Johnson also form the nucleus of what Mir calls "the Techie Society."

"Every Wednesday night," Mir explained, "we meet at a restaurant. Everybody brings in the latest gadget, and we pass them around to get new ideas for the museum."

Mir listed the extensive Fermilab volunteer ties: former director Leon Lederman is a member of the International Advisory Panel; former director John Peoples is a member of the Board of Directors; Assistant Director Bruce Chrisman handles the formal link between lab and museum; Marge Bardeen and the staff of the Lederman Education Center lend their educational expertise; Bill Higgins of Environment, Safety and Health; John Konc and Orlando Colon of the Computing Division; Boaz Klima from DZero; Joe Incandela of the Particle Physics Divisionó"and many more," Mir concluded.

Mir is a high energy physicist by training, with experimenter credentials at CERN, SLAC and DESY, and he's a guest scientist at Fermilab. He's an educator by inclination, starting with volunteer work during his grad school days and ascending to full-time professional as designer of the two-acre Outdoor Science Garden at the Weizmann Institute for Science in Rehovot, Israel. He and his family (wife Debby, an environmental scientist; son Schlomi, 12; daughter Adva, 10) emigrated when the SciTech position was offered.

Mir is especially attuned to the international reputation built by SciTech's founding director, Fermilab's Ernie Malamud. International collaborations include developing exhibits for museums in Rome, Tokyo, and Melbourne, Australia; and participating in the establishment of the first Palestinian science center.

Augmenting its local educational outreach programs (which include science-themed summer camp sessions), SciTech is duplicating its renowned weather exhibits for nine other museums around the Midwest, in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa. The museum is also playing a leading role in the "WWW" ("Wings, Wheels and Waves") festival to be held in May, encouraging the redevelopment of downtown Aurora. And there are plans for extensive renovation of the museum, including the installation of a mezzanine level and an overall "high-tech" look.

"We're addressing the MTV generation in trying to develop a focused attention span," Mir said, "so we have to be very creative. But we're not just for kids. We're for everybody who is a kid at heart."

last modified 3/24/2000   email Fermilab