When it comes to captivating imaginations, the designers of science-museum exhibits know as well as anyone about the special appeal of a hands-on display.
A dusty old relic behind glass? Or a gizmo that someone can push and pull to discover the laws of physics? No contest.
A small new exhibit at the Franklin Institute takes the hands-on concept a step further: Visitors must use their hands — and brains — to solve problems. Called Tech Studio, the exhibit is presented in a series of stations on the museum’s third floor, at the top of the staircase that wraps around the massive Foucault’s pendulum.
While the activities are designed for tabletop fun, they evoke comparisons with technology in the real world. The distance sensors in the robots, for example, are small-scale cousins of the gadgetry in driverless cars — the prospect of which has fueled much of the interest in the newly public ride-sharing companies Lyft and Uber.
At the exhibit’s opening event in May, where a ceremonial ribbon was cut with a giant pair of 3D-printed scissors, Franklin Institute president Larry Dubinski spelled out the themes behind Tech Studio.
“Hands-on experimentation," he said. "Critical thinking. Problem-solving. Real-world scenarios.”
Jayatri Das, the museum’s director of science content, agreed.
“It’s not just about understanding the phenomena of science,” she said. “It’s learning about the trial and error, and the resilience and the creativity.”
The exhibit, sponsored and co-developed by the global electronics firm TE Connectivity, also has a space for rotating technology demos. At the May event, a museum staffer demonstrated how a metallic compound can be made to levitate and travel around a magnetic track.
First he doused a wafer of the compound, called yttrium barium copper oxide, in liquid nitrogen, cooling it to several hundred degrees below zero — to the point that it achieved a state called superconductivity. The physics is fairly advanced, but it involves a phenomenon called the Meissner effect, causing the wafer to float in midair above the magnetic track. With a gentle push from a gloved hand, the suspended wafer darted around the circular path.
Because of the ultra-cold temperatures required, superconducting materials are not yet used in many everyday applications. But maybe one of the would-be engineers at Tech Studio will grow up to make it happen.