At the Museum of Discovery, the youngsters are making huge steam rings, bowling and pumping up lungs. The smallest ones are making lava lamps out of colored water, oil and carbon dioxide. It is a play area of sorts. But it is also a place for finding wonders in the physical world, for both the squirts and their parents.
“It’s exciting for a kid to see hydrogen ignite, but it’s no less exciting for adults,” said Kevin Delaney, the museum’s director of visitor experience who’s gained a modicum of fame by making elephant toothpaste on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” (Hydrogen peroxide plus soap plus dye plus potassium iodide will launch an astonishing sploosh of colored foam.)
Getting that message across — that the museum is for adults as well as children — is the challenge Delaney and the educational staff at the museum have taken on. Sometimes, adults learn by watching their kids. Last week, a father lay on a bed of nails for his daughter (what father wouldn’t) and they talked about why it didn’t hurt. Sometimes, the grownups learn at Science After Dark, the museum’s monthly event that combines a cash bar and pizza with a science program (this Wednesday’s was the Science of Fire, with the Little Rock Fire Department, a Forestry Commission employee and museum staff).
And though there is a bit of running amok and noise in the museum, the staff is constantly engaging children, like the adorable redhead who dragged Delaney over to the scorpion tank last week to inform him that a scorpion is “vemenous.” He’s also an arachnid, Delaney told him, counting off the eight legs. And then he asked the cute redhead, what’s the difference between venomous and poisonous? An uninformed reporter waited eagerly for the answer. You’re “vemonous” when the poison is inside you and poisonous when it’s outside you, the kid answered. Right! We all made fang signs with our fingers and moved on.
The museum staff’s eagerness to enrich the experience might be why in June alone there were 12,600 visitors to the museum. In all, there were 152,000 visitors in 2013.
Do the museum’s hands-on exhibits and experiments fuel a real interest in science as well as entertain? “Absolutely,” Delaney said. He’s seen it himself. He was heading up a class in brain dissection for older school kids. “I remember one kid up in the front. He was very rambunctious and I was thinking, oh no, I was going to have to keep an eye on him. As soon as he got to the table with the specimen and tools … he was the most focused kid in the group.” The kids around him, nervous about making the cut, calmed down when they saw his focus. “That kid is going to be a surgeon,” Delaney said. “It’s happened so many times. Kids will see a demonstration and it resonates. They will remember it. … That’s why I keep doing my job.”
Delaney himself is an example of a nonscience person getting turned on by science (though his uncle studied ancient pollen and his brother is a marine biologist whose claim to fame is breeding leafy sea dragons at Sea World in Orlando). Delaney’s background is in theater and writing; he taught improv in Providence, R.I., before moving to Arkansas with his wife, a native of North Little Rock. He also worked with animals at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence. He thought when he was hired on at the MOD that his job would be to work with the museum’s animal collection. “Then they told me, ‘You’re now going to learn chemistry, physics, math and everything else.’ “
And he does it with flair. Delaney’s TV appearance has brought great publicity for the museum and his theatrical talents; NASA invited him recently to do science demonstrations for a bring-your-kid-to-work day event there. “Social media blew up,” museum PR person Kendall Thornton said. “A lot of visitors here — our core — it gave them a whole new sense of pride in the museum.”
The museum’s Facebook page, which features humble but funny staff-made videos, is the best way to keep up with what’s happening there. The museum is at 500 President Clinton Ave. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for children under 12, seniors, teachers, active duty military and city employees and free for children under 1. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.