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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: January 27, 2016

Two new interactive exhibits at the Portland Science Center

Written by: Ray Routhier

Mainers will be able to see a moon rock, exercise like an astronaut, look through goggles that simulate the eyesight of a housefly and man the controls of a robotic platypus.

All in one place.

This eclectic mix of activities will be part of two new exhibits opening Friday at the Portland Science Center on Maine Wharf, off Commercial Street.

“SPACE: A Journey to Our Future” is an exhibit put together in collaboration with NASA and features 15 to 20 space-related artifacts ranging from a moon rock and piece of a meteorite to space suits, tools and the kind of exercise gear used by astronauts to keep in shape in zero gravity. The “Robot Zoo” exhibit, based on the book of the same name, features robotic replicas of a chameleon, a platypus and a fly, with levers and gears used to illustrate the complexity of these creatures.

The two traveling exhibits, organized by a company called Evergreen Exhibitions, are just the second and third exhibits to be hosted by the 6-month-old Portland Science Center and will be on view until mid-May. The center’s first exhibit, “Body Worlds,” was on view from September until early January.

The space exhibit is geared toward youngsters age 7 to 17, said Mark Greenberg of Evergreen Exhibitions, while “Robot Zoo” is aimed at children 4 and older.

Both exhibits have hands-on things for visitors. In “Robot Zoo,” people can push buttons to make the creatures move and see what, mechanically, creates the motion. So when the fly is commanded to flap its wings by a visitor, people will see the gears, levers and pistons needed to make that action possible.

“If the motion of these animals was done with gears and pistons, it would be very complex, but nature has done it in a very elegant way,” Greenberg said.

The robotic chameleon features a “tongue gun” that people activate with a joystick. Push the controls and the chameleon fires its a tongue at various targets and sticks to them. There is also a hide-and-seek game with a green screen, the kind TV meteorologists use. Kids wear coats that blend in with the video background so they can get a sense of what it’s like to blend in with their surroundings, as chameleons do.

Other activities include building an animal out of blocks and working with hinges and other mechanical devices in a body shop. There are goggles that let people get the same multi-lens view a fly gets, and there’s a swat test that measures how fast people can swat at a fly.

Another highlight of the “Robot Zoo” exhibit is an area where people can don sticky hand pads and climb up a sloped surface, sticking to it the way flies do. The Portland Science Center has also arranged for robotics clubs from local schools to create displays. In the space exhibit, people can touch pieces of the moon and Mars that have fallen to Earth and see a glass-encased rock that was actually taken from the surface of the moon by astronauts, Greenberg said. People can ride a sort of space exercise machine that goes around and around in a circle and is powered like a bicycle. It’s the type of equipment NASA is planning to use when, or if, they send astronauts on the very long trip to Mars, Greenberg said.

The space exhibit also includes an infrared telescope. People can step in front of it, and an image of their body appears on a screen with different colors marking temperature differences in their body.

“With all our exhibits, we hope they provide a spark for learning,” said Greenberg. “Not teaching lessons like in school, but motivating kids to hopefully continue exploring these things.”

Portland Science Center
WHERE: 68 Commercial St., Maine Wharf, Portland
WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $15.50 to $19.50
Two new exhibits open Friday and run until mid-May: “SPACE: A Journey to Our Future” and “Robot Zoo”

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