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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 2.17.11

What Makes Elmo Dance

Science Factory exhibit explains how toys tick

by Camilla Mortensen and Chelsea Fryhoff

Bells, clinks, cranks, squeaking and excited voices fill the small space of the rainbow-colored building. An afternoon at The Science Factory Childrens Museum & Exploration Dome sounds more like an arcade than a museum.

Toys: The Inside Story, currently at the Science Factory, is a wonderland of hands-on exhibits of circuits, cams, gears, pulleys and linkages ‹ûeverything from what makes the Elmo doll dance the hokey-pokey to what makes the buzzer bleat at unsteady hands in the game of Operation.û If you were (or are) the kind of kid who really wanted to crack open your Etch-a-Sketch and see what was inside, Toys is calling your name.û

Admiring art on the giant Etch-a-Sketch
Practicing a steady hand in the game of Operation
Turning the gears makes the ballerina dance

The Science Factory isnt just any museum; its an educational emporium for kids encouraging them to use their minds as well as their bodies to explore its many mysteries. Toys is one such interactive exhibit featuring 12 different stations that reveal the underpinnings of toys and how their mechanisms work, says Executive Director Carolyn Rebbert. Also on display are many øclassic toys" that appeal to parents as much as they do to kids, she adds.û

If Operation still startles the crap out of you when that horrid buzzer goes off, and the bulbous nose of that weird looking patient, Cavity Sam, lights up while youre removing his øspare ribs," learning about what makes the game work may ease your jumpy nerves. The Toys version of the game shows øwhat happens when you close a circuit," Rebbert says. On the øCircuit Wall," kids can move a ring along an angled rod in order to keep a circuit open, showing on a larger scale why you need that steady hand to play doctor. (EW was unable to verify before press time the rumor that real-life doctors use the game to train for surgery.)

The Jack-in-the Box is an even more classic example. We all know what happens after the line øall around the mulberry bush the monkey chased the weasel" ‹ Pop! But what makes Jack jump? Its a cam combination (cam is a rotating or sliding piece in a mechanical linkage, or more simply, the thingy that camshafts link to). But kids and parents can explore this for themselves on the øCam Wall" and at øWhats Inside Jack-in-the Box?"û

Elmo might be a more recent phenomenon, but the exhibit shows that his hokey-pokey dance also uses cams. And though the infamous Tickle Me Elmo isnt included in the Toys exhibit, inquiring minds might want to know that the same thing making your cell phone vibrate makes Elmo quiver ‹ûa battery powered gear mounted off-center with a small weight. When the gear spins, the wonky weight vibrates your phone, or your Elmo. This is what happens when cool museum exhibits show you what makes Elmo dance ‹ it makes you want to know what makes him vibrate, too.

While theres only one Elmo at the Science Factory, there are plenty of gears. The øGear Train" and øGear Table" are where kids can see and feel how gears work with øone mechanical piece linked to another to make it a small to large ratio," and the way this affects how powerfully things turn, Rebbert says. For example, kids can inspect how gears spin a ballerina or a carousel.û

Toys also demonstrates øwhy its so difficult to use an Etch-a-Sketch," Rebbert says. (Spoiler alert for those of you who, like us, thought it was simply magic or elves living inside the little red doohickey that made it work ‹ were about to question that theory.)û

The Etch-a Sketch is all about pulleys. The two knobs at the bottom of the toys frame control a vertical and a horizontal bar. Thats right ‹ youre trying to use straight bars to make circles when you attempt to draw a snowman on an Etch-a-Sketch. Thats why making curved lines is so hard. The knobs you turn are connected to steel wires. When you turn one or both knobs, the wires move a bar. A stylus is mounted at the spot where the bars cross, and as it scrapes across the screen it removes the aluminum beads that coat it. Once you and your munchkin companions have learned how the toy works, you can test out your drawing skills on the Science Factorys øGiant Pattern Tracer" (i.e., the biggest Etch-a-Sketch youve ever played with).

When theyre done exploring Toys, Rebbert says, økids can return to their old favorites" like the øThe Recyclotron." This is a tall glass box filled with recycled toys, cans, bottles, metal tubes, plastic buckets and lights, all fronted by three trash cans and resembling something like the inside of a complex gumball machine. The trick is to stop the balls from ending up in the ølandfill" by choosing a path that leads them to be reduced, reused or recycled. On a recent afternoon, one budding young recycler watched with bated breath and fists clenched by his ears as his friend worked to get a metal ball the size of a jawbreaker through the various tubes in order to make a red, yellow or green bulb light up.

øI wish I had all that recycle so I could build a robot," the little one told his mom as they walked away.û

If youre øchild-free" (or just want to leave the kids at home) dont let that stop you from the joys of The Recyclotron or the giant Etch-a-Sketch ‹ûfrom 5 to 8 pm on March 18 the exhibit is øadults only," Rebbert says.

Toys: The Inside Story will be at the Science Factory until May 8, and is open 10 am to 4 pm Wednesday through Sunday (free for Science Factory members, $7 for nonmembers or $4 if you want to see the exhibit but not the Exploration Dome).

If kids want to come out in their pajamas, the museum has recently begun a Friday Science After Five series. Friday, February 18, is the Seven Wonders of the Science Factory Scavenger Hunt (members $2; nonmembers $5).

For more on the Science Factory and its events go to www.sciencefactory.org