Science center provides fun finale

By ANNE KAZMIERCZAK
Register Reporter

Register/Anne Kazmierczak
From left, Patricia Outlan, Jayla Smith, Tristan Miller and Chris Wilhite determine the type of whale they have just put together during an activity at the Exploration Place in Wichita Thursday. Angel Keidel was a whiz at getting her paper airplanes through three hopes at Exploration Place’s flight exhibit Thursday. Behind her, Zane Griffith, Tristan Cary, Devon Catron and Zane’s grandmother Beth Griffith wait their turns.

They stood in tornadoes. Overhead, planets swirled. Around them, the long, fierce bones of cetaceans hung beside their Maori names.
Thursday marked the final field trip of the summer SAFE BASE program for about 120 children in USD 257. They shuttled off in yellow buses to the Exploration Place in Wichita, a stunning science center filled with hands-on displays about flight mechanics, Kansas’ landscape and skeletal whales.
Whales are sacred to the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand, who see the giant beasts as “taonga,” a treasure from the sea. Carved whale bone pendants and ceremonial paddles were on display along with a life-sized replica of a blue whale heart.
At 100 feet long, the blue whale is the largest animal to ever live on earth. It’s heart easily held five fourth-graders.
The children learned through a “whale activity” the difference between baleen, or filter-feeding, and toothed whales, those that hunt fish and seals for their food.
The students were fascinated by the hanging bones and videos of whale scientists and Maori carving the massive bodies of beached whales for both food and scientific study. Sound displays played the mournful calls the leviathans use to locate food — and each other.
It seemed amazing, education program specialist Steve Kimball told the students, that the largest whales eat the smallest food. Baleen whales simply swim through the sea with their mouths agape, he said, filtering shrimp and plankton from sea water as they go. The baleen, he said, is made of the same material as hair or fingernails; another commonality in all mammals.
Kimball acted as a low-key tour guide for the group, introducing an IMAX film about the changes in Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets and leading the whale activities. He explained even whales get the bends if they rise too quickly from the depths of the seas.
The students had to do short presentations for one another about what they had learned. A group of second- and third-graders, including Blake Middlemeyer, Devon Wilson, Matthew Karr and Blake Haar described how toothed whales hunt using echolocation.
In the Kansas display, large crystal blocks of native rock salt sat within reach of tanks holding tarantulas and lizards. Nearby, a tornado generator created a swirl of vapor to replicate formation of a storm.
In the flight center, hands-on activities were the rage. A tall tower generated wind on a curving wall of silver disks — the patterns changed as children turned the dials. Flight simulators for planes spanning the realm of aviation history lured in eager youth. The Wright brothers’ plane was steered by a joystick that foiled attempts at level flight. Jets were crashed or landed at their young pilots’ delight.
The day ended with a whirl through a three-story playroom, complete with a giant bubble machine that kept the youngsters busy.
The bus ride back in 100-degree heat was made bearable by a treat provided by Wanda Kneen, SAFE BASE health coordinator.
Soaked in cool water were gel-filled neckerchiefs. Wrapped around the necks of even the bus drivers, the reusable neck bands were a welcome gift.
In all, it was a successful end to a summer season where education seemed circumstantial to fun.