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Inspired by curiosity, fueled by fun

Countless activities that never grow old as Science Fest turns 5

By Shira Springer
Globe Correspondent / April 10, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE - What happens when you mix polyvinyl alcohol, sodium borate solution, and blue food coloring? As young visitors to the Cambridge Science Festival will learn, the combination creates blue slime. Wearing lab coats and working alongside Pfizer scientists, pint-sized chemists can make batches of the delightfully icky substance. Or, they can eat ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen, take apart a cellphone and discover the metals inside, play with robots, or look through a giant kaleidoscope.

And that’s just a sampling of the activities planned for the roughly 90 booths at the Science Carnival portion of the nine-day festival. Beginning April 30, Cambridge turns into a gigantic, public laboratory space where science experts and novices mix, mingle, and experiment. The only prerequisite: Come with curiosity.

Most of the 200-plus planned activities at 50 venues are hands-on and free, though some require advance registration because of group size limits. Looking to repeat the success of past festivals, organizers packed this year’s schedule with a wide range of ages and interests in mind.

With so much to choose from, the event is like a candy store for science enthusiasts. And John Durant, founder and executive director, hopes the variety of offerings keeps families coming back to the festival and to science generally.

“The notion that we’re all born scientists has some truth to it,’’ said Durant. “Kids are spontaneously interested in science. We want to tap into that and encourage that. Curiosity is a big theme with us. We’re very keen to give visitors of all ages, from the youngest to the oldest, the chance to explore, to ask, to find out.

“We hope to stir people’s curiosity in ways that will go far beyond the end of the festival. Maybe it will lead youngsters to ask their parents to take them to a science museum, to buy that science experiment kit, to read that book about planets — whatever it is that has fired their enthusiasm.’’

The fifth annual festival kicks off with demonstrations, classes, experiments, and talks that span the city and spill over its borders. Meet women in science at the Museum of Science, listen to nature storytime at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, solve the mystery introduced in “CSI Aquatic’’ near Fresh Pond. Or, visit the MIT campus, which will be the festival epicenter on Day 1.

Honoring its 150th anniversary, MIT will host a daylong (11 a.m.-4 p.m.), campus-wide open house called “Under the Dome,’’ complete with tours of laboratories, robotics competitions, a Black Hawk helicopter fly-in, lessons in origami math, blimp races, and talks with astronauts. And that’s just for starters.

The range of subjects — engineering, technology, medical sciences, physics, astronomy, computer sciences, architecture, aeronautics, environmental sciences, humanities — explored “Under the Dome’’ sets the tone for rest of the festival. Organizers take a something-for-everyone approach and shy away from festival-wide themes, though the event will mark the International Year of Chemistry with a special chemistry demonstration at “Under the Dome.’’

Many activities will make connections between multiple disciplines and show the relevancy of science to everyday life. In “CSI Aquatic,’’ kids will switch between a virtual world and the real-world setting of Black’s Nook Pond, gathering clues to unravel an environmental mystery.

“I hope participants start to see connections between what they see in the virtual world and the real world and they get excited about exploring the real world,’’ said CSI Aquatic organizer Amy Kamarainen, who recommends the program (which requires pre-registration) for children ages 10-15. “I hope they go out and find their own real-world mysteries. It’s also an opportunity for parents to see some of the emerging technologies that are being used in science classrooms.’’

In “Video Games 101’’ on May 5, local game companies such as Harmonix, Moonshot Games, SCVNGR, 38 Studios, Owlchemy Labs, and Fire Hose Games, as well as the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, will talk about their work. Then, it’s time to play with prototypes and demos. It would seem to be a perfect workshop for families with teenagers.

“I’m not so bold as to say video games will solve all interpersonal conflict between parents and their children, but it’s certainly a subject matter that we find really appeals to teenagers,’’ said Marleigh Norton, lead interaction designer with GAMBIT. “If teenagers are saying, ‘Mom and Dad, will you take me to the museum? I really want to see this thing,’ it seems like a huge win.’’

Throughout the festival, families can add to their shared experiences with hunts created by SCVNGR. You might be asked to take a picture with an astronaut, make a paper helicopter and see how high you can fly it, or pretend you discovered a new dinosaur and come up with a name for it.

If families can choose just one event to attend, the Science Carnival, on May 7, would be a smart pick. There are activities designed to engage all ages from toddlers (“Story and Play,’’ “Dinosaur Tracks in Massachusetts,’’ “Interactive Water Wall,’’ to name a few) to grandparents. And many of the hands-on experiences can be shared. As the mother of 9-year-old twin girls, P.A. d’Arbeloff, festival director, said she designed the event, in part, with families in mind. And she regularly seeks feedback from her daughters, Nori and Annie, who consider the carnival a highlight.

“They love the carnival because they can run from booth to booth to booth and learn all kinds of things,’’ said d’Arbeloff. “One of the requirements to be in the carnival is to be very hands-on. My daughters know they’re going to get all messy and they’re going to be wowed. They’re surprised every year and they have a blast. It’s this big, open, free, safe, wonderful, inspiring place.’’

Equally inspiring for science enthusiasts is the festival’s creation and growth. When Durant arrived from England to become director of the MIT Museum in 2005, he was surprised at the absence of science festivals in the United States. Such events are popular in Western Europe. Durant suggested Cambridge host a festival because, he said, “Cambridge is a special place scientifically and technologically with more science per square foot than pretty much anywhere else I’ve been.’’ Yet, as a newcomer, he found much of the city’s science and technology invisible to the general public. That’s no longer the case.

In 2007, the first Cambridge Science Festival took place, drawing an estimated 15,000 visitors and inspiring similar celebrations of science in other cities such as San Diego and across the state of North Carolina. This year, d’Arbeloff expects 40,000 attendees over the event’s nine days, 5,000 at the Science Carnival alone.

D’Arbeloff recommends visitors take public transportation. With so many free, family events on May 7, the festival will operate two free trolleys with stops near the Harvard and Central Square T Stations and stops at such key venues as the MIT Museum and Cambridge Public Library.

“Whether it’s this year or any other year, I really hope kids understand that there is a huge, fascinating, fun world out there,’’ said d’Arbeloff. “And it includes science and math and engineering and technology and design. While you may think science isn’t for you or you didn’t get the highest scores on the math test or fear the math test, science can be really, really fun and exciting. Take a second look. Take a third look.’’

Or, you can take countless looks in one day at the festival.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

If You Go

Cambridge Science Festival
Saturday, April 30, to Sunday, May 8
Complete schedule: cambridgesciencefestival.org
Key venues: Museum of Science, MIT Museum, Cambridge Public Library