The other day I walked into our modest prep area in the basement of the lecture hall. There was a line of string running from a cabinet to the gas spigot, and from the string there was a makeshift collection of miniature laundry. In this case, it was pieces of filter paper that had been soaking in red cabbage juice. On the counter, there was a tray with cups of purple, green, blue, pink, and red fluids, all vivid and matching some of the papers strips that were being prepped. Celia, one of our staff leaders, had been experimenting with the juice and the papers and the color changes that these go through to indicate different kinds of substances, acids and bases. It was as though some bizarre ultra saturated rainbows had spilled into the lab.
A few days later, Misti, our other lead staffer, called me into the same cramped basement space. She had assembled what most families would qualify as a disaster in the making. On the counter, a 5-gallon bucket of water with tubing fed water into a large bin with sand that was propped on a storage bin just below; and from that bin there was another piece of tubing that led to another bin of sand on the floor. It was like a Rube Goldberg machine of sludge, and it was marvelous. Water carved out new channels and deposited sand in evolving patterns. I reached in to scoop up a glob of wet sand and make a dam, which overflowed and burst. We started talking about the realities of how to haul 100 pounds of sand and many gallons of water in the trailer.
These are the kinds of things we prep for Science in the Parks. Sometimes we start with ideas, like the color changing and the sand eroding, and then see what we can do to make it work. Then we have to figure out how we’re going to contain it, transport it, and make sure it’s up to the task of having a couple hundred kids play with it. Other times, we’re just fiddling around with the magnets and realize that they will draw the iron filings in new arrangements in a jar. Or, the piece of tubing that we were planning on using for the new ping-pong-ball-pegboard-plumbing-maze construction (I’ll have to think of a shorter name for this) is spontaneously used to make a wave while we’re playing with it on the floor. Or, the geology department is trying to figure out what to do with a bunch of extra rocks — of course we take them. Or, the new microscopes we have remind us of our idea to have x-ray slides, and then we start on a quest to find transparencies of someone’s ribcage or skull or foot bones or all of these. Consistently, “all of these” is our answer.
This is our 10th season of Science in the Parks. Each year, we put in a lot of time just making the messes to prepare all the things, new and old. Through it all I’m always reminded of how the program isn’t “science” in that starched lab coat kind of way. Instead, it’s creative and playful and messy and, most of all, joyful. I see this behind the scenes and, next week, we’ll get to see it again out in the parks as we start another 6-week tour. We’re excited to share that fun and mess.