Some museums post signs that say, "Do not touch."
At The Works, not only can kids touch everything but they also can take things apart and put them back together. The small museum in Bloomington is a training ground for future engineers.
On a recent visit, my 9-year-old son and a friend hoisted each other on pulleys and unzipped a 6-foot-tall zipper. They played music on a "harp" that uses optical sensors to trigger musical notes. They programmed robots, built towers with foam bricks and built cars to race down wood ramps.
"You get to do all the stuff instead of just looking at it," said my son, who has visited the museum several times and is always eager to return.
The Works - which bills itself as "a playground of engineering, science and creativity" - was founded in 1995 by Twin Cities engineer Rebecca Schatz. She was inspired by The Exploratorium in San Francisco.
During the past five years, attendance at The Works has quadrupled to 50,000 visitors in 2011, thanks in part to rising interest in science education, particularly engineering and technology.
After Minnesota added engineering to state science standards in 2009, more schools began scheduling field trips. The St. Paul public school district now sends every sixth-grade class for a visit.
READY TO ROLL
To make room for more kids, The Works moved to a larger building in Bloomington this fall, after years of operating in several old classrooms in the Edina Community Center.
"It really feels like we're coming into our own. It's an exciting time," said Jill Measells, a former vice president at the Minnesota Children's Museum who was hired a month before the move as The Works' first CEO.
Exhibits are built and maintained by volunteers. One of my son's favorites is the K'Nex race car ramp. Several small tables are covered with clear plastic bins of K'Nex pieces. The two 9-year-old boys quickly snapped together cars using axles, connectors and wheels.
"Last time I was here, it kept bouncing off the sides of the track," said my 9-year-old son, as he tried to figure out a design that would roll straight. "If you're wondering why I put these things in the middle, it's for weight."
The boys carried their contraptions to a wood ramp, about 4 feet tall and divided into two lanes that ended at a finish line where a red LED display flashed the times above each lane.
My son's car crashed into the side of the track - again.
"Oh, crud," he said. He retrieved his car and headed back to the design table, where he stared at it for a minute. "The wheels need to be farther apart."
While he worked, I talked to St. Paul dad Makai Catudio. His 6-year-old son, Max, was among the eight or so kids racing cars.
"I had to shore it up for him because it kept twisting," said Catudio, who was balancing his toddler, James, on his hip amid K'Nex pieces scattered across the carpet. Catudio said he had studied mechanical engineering in college and was impressed with his first visit to The Works.
"There is so much to do here," he said. "The kids don't have to know the physics of it - that the heavier car with less friction is going to win. They're learning by just having fun."
Another favorite area was a room filled with hundreds of gray foam building blocks.
"Let's build a castle," shouted my son as he dashed into the room. He and his friend gathered armloads of blocks and laid a foundation.
A few feet away, another family was finishing an
"My sister wanted to build a house without a door," explained Rachel's brother Caleb, with a shrug, as if to say, who can explain the mind of a sister?
"How are you going to get out of there," our friend asked, distracted from castle construction by our neighbor's dilemma.
"I don't know," said Holly Woodson. "I think I still can step over it. But she sure can't."
"We're done!" shouted Caleb as he laid the last row of blocks.
"No," came sister Rachel's voice from behind the wall. "We have to make a ceiling now!" But they skipped a ceiling and Woodson and Rachel knocked their way out, like Godzilla. Then everyone pitched in to work on the castle. Like good bricklayers, the kids quickly discovered that blocks stacked directly on top of each other tip over, but blocks that overlap stand strong.
With its bigger space, the museum also can host traveling exhibits. We wandered through "Toys: The Inside Story," which will remain open into May.
We looked at the innards of an Etch-a-Sketch and a jack-in-the-box. The boys played with gears, pulleys and belts. They learned why a Hello Kitty plush toy talks when you squeeze her. The squeeze closes an electrical circuit and powers a speaker.
Before we left, we stopped by the Design Lab upstairs, where kids make stuff to take home. On a previous visit, we had made flashlights using batteries, cardboard tubes and tiny light bulbs. This time, we made hovercrafts out of CDs.
First we rubbed the shiny side with sandpaper so the glue would adhere.
"You get to scratch up CDs!" our friend said with delight.
Next we grabbed a retractable plastic nipple cap, the kind that tops a bottle of dish soap. They used hot glue guns to glue the cap over the hole in the middle of the CD. I helped them blow up a big balloon and stretch it over the nipple. Then they set the CD flat on a table, and as the balloon deflated, air pushed through the cap and out around the bottom edge of the CD.
"It's floating!" exclaimed my son. "Look, look!"
Sure enough, the air hissing out of the balloon provided just enough lift. My son flicked the side of the CD with his index finger and CD shot across the surface like a puck on an air hockey table.
Like any good engineer, my son wanted to tweak his design. The balloon kept tipping over, so he glued four plastic straws onto the CD as a cage to hold the balloon upright. He was still thinking of improvements even as the staff announced it was time for the museum to close and I was herding him down the stairs to go home.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: The Works
Where: 9740 Grand Ave. S., Bloomington
Information: 952-888-4262 or theworks.org
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday; closed Tuesday and Wednesday
Cost: $6 person, $2 extra for Design Lab
Target audience: Kids ages 5-12
Crowd pleaser: Racing K'nex cars down the ramps
Tip: Bring a snack or lunch to eat in the lunchroom.