Winner By a Nose

Young visitors are something to sneeze at in the Liberty Science Center's
Young visitors are something to sneeze at in the Liberty Science Center's "Infection Connection" display. (Photos Copyright 2007 Liberty Science Center)
By Tommy Nguyen
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Much like their relationship with co-workers in adjacent cubicles, most adults these days could hardly be bothered to say "bless you" when a two-foot-long fiberglass nose suddenly sneezes, and they usually feel no overriding impulse to stick their fingers up its nostrils.

Kids are a different story. On a recent rainy Saturday afternoon at the newly redesigned Liberty Science Center, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan in Jersey City, my friend Katie and I noticed that most kids really enjoy using their fingers when they're trying to unlock the mysteries of the world. And whether they're picking the nose of a science exhibit or -- quite frankly -- their own, they always do it with such focus and open-mindedness that their potential for learning seems limitless when fewer things are made off-limits.

That's why hands-on science museums are also popular with parents, and why the lines at Liberty, which reopened last month after a $109 million renovation, were winding every which way when I visited. Built in 1993, the museum took nearly two years to increase and upgrade its attractions. Its four-level, 295,000-square-foot, white-walled fortress now houses 10 exhibitions and one of the country's largest Imax domes.

It was in the exhibition called "Infection Connection" that I came across some kids having a field day with that giant sneezing nose.

Christopher Mendoza, a hospitality staffer, stood next to me while we watched one young girl jump up and down after every wet sneeze (a burst of compressed air and water traveling at 100 mph), as though she were standing next to a lawn sprinkler in mid-July.

"I see a lot of parents telling the kids to read the display and see why this nose is here," Mendoza said. "Most kids don't read it, but they do enjoy the fact that the nose keeps sneezing on them." I asked Mendoza to explain the hands-on learning opportunity here. "The kids think that if they can put their hands up the nose, it will go off, but it's completely random," Mendoza said.

Surely no one had the intention to elevate nose-picking to an essential experience at the museum, but one could argue that the kids' subversion of the exhibit actually offered better proof that hands-on kid science is alive and well. From a display-size underground reservoir that created geysers or hot springs with the turn of a valve, to the 20-foot-long riverbed table that got hands wet in dredging and erosion demonstrations, kids are at their best when they're figuring out cause and effect. An exhibit that showed how a sneeze spreads germs is a worthwhile idea, but it was nice to see that it was no match for the far more immediate and compelling scientific inquiry: How can I get this nose to sneeze at the exact moment when Dad walks by?

After taking a stroll among exhibit portraits of famous germs throughout history, Katie started getting spooked. "I want to see exactly what I've been touching with all these kids running around and sneezing," she said, heading to a lab station where germs could be examined through ultraviolet light. A family of four in front of us put on lab coats and rubbed lotion all over their hands. Katie and I quietly peeked over their shoulders.

"Oh, whoa! What were you touching, dude?" Stephanie Bailer asked her husband, Jeff, when he put his hand under the light. His palm held out an unmatched galaxy of fluorescent yellow. But when it came to her two kids, she didn't bat an eye.

"They're just as dirty as I thought they were," she told me afterward.

Her daughter and son are 9 and 6 -- only three years apart but worlds away in their interests. One of the areas the science center wanted to improve upon was offering more exhibits that cater to specific age groups. The new "I Explore" room, for example, is for kids ages 2 to 6; we weren't allowed in because we didn't have a kid to accompany us, and Katie said she was in no hurry to borrow one. A news release mentions that "I Explore" has climbing structures and a "rock xylophone."

The exhibition "Skyscrapers!" was more universal in its appeal. Its main event is a mock construction site where kids can put on hard hats, strap themselves to harnesses and walk on steel beams 18 feet above the ground. (Unfortunately, it was closed when I visited.) But I saw many adults taking their time roaming "Skyscrapers!," almost all stopping at the interactive, time-lapse timeline chronicling the construction of the new New York Times tower in midtown Manhattan.

I think Katie and I ended up liking the "Communication" exhibition the best, with me being a journalist and Katie having recently broken up with a boyfriend who accused her of not listening. I could have easily spent nearly an hour tracing the genesis of the world's written languages if a group of kids writing graffiti on a wall with "digital spray cans" hadn't drawn me away. In one of the museum's boldest moves, graffiti is regarded as a cultural asset of human communication, and the exhibit digitally stores each graffiti tag as part of "Exhibit Commons," a place where visitors can contribute their own works or testimonies as a way to break down curatorial gates and engage the public.

I gave this whole elegant spiel to Gary and Lily Swenson, who were observing the exhibit from afar. They weren't buying it.

"It's teaching them graffiti! It's not a good idea," Gary said.

I pointed out a disclaimer written next to the graffiti wall that read: "Uninvited graffiti is illegal. . . . Please paint responsibly."

Lily rolled her eyes: "That's like saying, 'Drink responsibly.' "

© 2007 The Washington Post Company