New “Bubbles” exhibit aims to pump kids’ love of science at the Children’s Museum of Denver
The names pop and zing like wild, white-knuckled theme-park attractions: the Drop Zone, the Vapor Station, the Big Bubble Maker. But like most activities at the Children’s Museum of Denver, they’re also designed to inject some learning into the fun.
“Bubbles,” the museum’s latest long-term exhibit, which opens Saturday, has a deceptively simple title. Designed and tested over a four-year period, the $275,000 installation brings the secret science of bubbles to life with interactive play that engages kids’ most basic instincts to blow and twirl their way through giant soapy blobs of air.
It’s a blast, yes, but it also aims to fire up the science, math and engineering side of things during a crucial time when kids are forming lifelong interests in such subjects.
“Bubbles are popular in children’s museums, but this takes it to a whole different level,” said Zoe Ocampo, the museum’s communications manager.
The exhibit is packed into a relatively tight space — 750 square feet, or less than a 10th of the museum’s overall 11,000 square feet of exhibit and play space — but it makes good on every inch of it.
“Bubbles” comprises six distinct “platforms for play,” including the Vapor Station, where kids can fill bubbles with foggy water vapor or create bubbles within bubbles, and the Bubble Booth, in which a four-paneled “bubble box” encases kids while they learn about such concepts as surface tension and airflow.
There’s also the aptly-named Big Bubble Maker (which cranks out 6-foot long, 3-foot- wide bubbles) and the Drop Zone (big, vapor-filled bubbles fall from the ceiling and burst overhead as they succumb to gravity).
The idea for the exhibit came when the staff started looking at more efficient, general-audience uses for its valuable space. The exhibit previously filling the “Bubbles” space — “Making the Team,” a popular but aging basketball and fitness exhibit — got the ax.
“We are really, really crowded here, and each year our attendance keeps growing,” education director Jennifer Mullix said of the 37-year-old museum.
Indeed, an estimated 289,000 people streamed through the museum’s doors last year — a 6 percent increase over 2008, and a large number for an institution whose total exhibit space is about the size of the rooftop patio at LoDo’s Uptown Tavern.
“This is the first time that we’ve taken an entire exhibit, torn it down and then started from scratch,” Ocampo said. “It’s really just about getting bigger and better.”
The museum’s education and exhibits departments traveled to children’s museums in St. Louis and San Antonio to study similar bubble-based activities. After that, they designed, fabricated and in- house tested their own versions in their “WillitWorks” prototyping lab, which allows the staff to watch kids and adults interact with new exhibits through a one-way mirror.
“It’s about how it’s going to hold up with little hands tugging and twisting and pulling and climbing, all the way down to ‘Is this boring? Is this engaging?’ ” Mullix said.
“We are one of the few children’s museums that actually has an in-house exhibit staff,” added JJ Rivera, senior manager of exhibit design. “Each one of these pieces is a one-of-a- kind piece.”
“Bubbles” makes a point to show how the different activities work by exposing the guts of the machines — the pumps, pulleys and gears, as well as the unique “bubble distribution” tank that mixes the sudsy solution to just the right chemical stew and sends it to all the different machines.
Over a mile of wire and an estimated 8,500 hours of work went into the exhibit, which is aimed at children ages 6 to 8 but is appropriate for kids 2 and up.
“Each child and adult that comes in here actually becomes a scientist,” Mullix said, gesturing to a nearby rack of lab coats and goggles. “They can test things and fail and succeed, then report their data and retest or make guesses. It’s all about getting them to understand the scientific method and how it’s applicable to the day-to-day.”
-By John Wenzel: 303-954-1642 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Kid’s science/play exhibit. Children’s Museum of Denver, 2121 Children’s Museum Drive. Opens Saturday, May 15.. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. $6-$8. 303-433-7444 or mychildsmuseum.org.