Kidspace expands Thursday with new 'Physics Forest'

With a clang of giant levers and the launch of a soda-bottle rocket, Kidspace Children's Museum is opening an expansive new outdoor playground that aims to make physics fun.

The 30,000-square-foot Robert & Mary Galvin Physics Forest, debuting Thursday, offers 13 interactive exhibits that demonstrate fundamental scientific concepts and encourage hands-on learning.

Velocity, trajectory and force are at work in a 50-foot rubber ball firing range.

Potential energy becomes kinetic energy in the “roller coaster,” in which users must get a ball through a tangle of interchangeable tubes that include a loop-de-loop and other obstacles.

Another station lets kids adjust weights to either speed or slow a rolling wheel, illustrating the concept of angular momentum. Or, as Kidspace Chief Executive and former classroom science teacher Michael Shanklin puts it, “why some galaxies spin faster because their mass is closer to the center.”

Shanklin's inner child came out to play Thursday as he demonstrated the museum's new toys, also including a lever-powered tug-of-war game and a “bottle blaster” that shoots its missiles several stories high.

Though it is one of the quieter exhibits, the wheel roll is a favorite of Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, a Kidspace board member who helped oversee the design of the Physics Forest.

“We hope this makes kids curious about how the world works,” said Brown, who famously “killed” Pluto with discoveries that led it to be downgraded from planet to dwarf-planet status. “When they start to ask questions, there are clues to help them figure things out.”

A number of Kidspace workers will also be on hand for teaching moments, Shanklin said. But the Galvin Physics Forest was laid out in a nonlinear pattern to let kids explore on their own.

“Most schools, especially now because of testing standards, don't have a lot of time or budget to dedicate to hands-on projects,” Shanklin said. “Here kids learn that force is a push or a pull: ‘I just used that plunger to shoot the ball way down range. That was awesome!' And when they're in middle school they can think back and say, ‘I exerted force, and for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction.' They see the application, or, as I like to say, the relevance.”

The $4-million Galvin Physics Forest is Kidspace's largest capital investment since 2004, when the museum moved to its current location in Brookside Park, next to the Rose Bowl. Founded in 1979, Kidspace was previously housed in the McKinley School gym before the Pasadena Unified School District reactivated that campus.

The Physics Forest sprouted from a $2.5-million donation by the Galvin Family Foundations and was helped along by a $1.7-million grant from the California Cultural & Historical Endowment.

Before his death in October, former Motorola Chief Executive Robert Galvin encouraged museums to embrace hands-on science exhibits, said Gail Galvin Ellis, Galvin's oldest daughter and a Kidspace board member from San Marino.

The physics forest, said Galvin Ellis, a psychologist at Pasadena City College, “will give children the opportunity to be exposed to science in a way that takes away some of the fear about being able to understand it.”

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