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'Mad' about science
Kids flock to mad scientist exhibit in its final days
Georgia Southern University Museum Visitor Services Coordinator Billy Tyson, top, helps Grayson Lewis, 4, explore the Touch and Discover exhibit at "The Mad Scientist's Laboratory" Exhibit at the Georgia Southern University Museum. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    Schools and home-school groups have been scrambling to schedule tours before the Mad Scientist Laboratory disappears from the Georgia Southern University Museum, as it will Jan. 25 to make room for a new exhibit on World War I.
    Surrounded by a small group of eager 3-year-olds from the Jenkins County Head Start program in Millen, the museum’s education graduate assistant, Lilith Logan, 23, held a piece of shiny nitinol wire.
    “It demonstrates the same properties as a rubber band,” Logan said. “Has everybody played with a rubber band before? What happens when you stretch a rubber band and let it go?”
    One or two kids said it might break. But Logan explained that a stretched rubber band snaps back to  its original shape.
    “We call that elasticity and shape memory,” she said. “We’re going to show you the same things here with a piece of metal wire.”
    Sure enough, the nitinol wire, which Logan coiled into a loose spring and let children hold, became mostly straight again when she dipped it in hot water.
    The 26 children from the Head Start program, among them a class of 4-year-olds, seemed impressed.
    But they liked stuff that changes color even more. When Logan and other tour guides perform the “color experiment,” they start with a test tube containing iron (III) nitrate and add a couple of drops of potassium ferrocyanide. (Don’t worry. It’s pretty safe, as cyanide compounds go.)
    Neither of these chemicals starts out blue, but the reaction colors the solution a striking blue. In fact, this is the “Prussian blue” of artists’ paints. A separate experiment, using one or two drops of potassium thiocyanate instead, makes the stuff in the tube blood red.

GSU’s mad scientists

    Along the wall where the equipment for these demonstrations is displayed hang photos and brief biographies of “mad chemists,” all Georgia Southern faculty members, like the other “mad scientists” who surround interactive exhibits along two other walls.
    Dr. Arpita Saha, pictured above the color experiment, is an assistant professor of inorganic chemistry. She explores ways to synthesize metal-based anticancer drugs and assess their
toxicity to cells, among other research. Dr. Ji Wu, another “mad chemist,” whose photo is near the nitinol wire table, is involved in research on nanofibers, also for applications in cancer treatment, and on nanotechnology to improve lithium ion batteries.
    Also featured on the wall, Dr. Rafael Quirino is a chemist who gets GSU students involved in materials research with his Quirino Research Group.
    When staff members ask who comes to mind when young visitors think of a mad scientist, they name examples from Dr. Frankenstein to Dexter, the boy-genius of “Dexter’s Laboratory,” notes GSU Museum Director Dr. Brent Tharp.
    “But what do they have in common? Well, they’re all absolutely passionate about what they do and are driven to find out something,” Tharp said. “So, that’s why we call our own scientists up here mad scientists. These guys are equally as driven.”
    A picture and bio of “mad paleontologist” Dr. Eric Wilberg, who studies the evolution of crocodiles and their extinct relatives, is displayed beside a specially designed Plinko board. Museum visitors can drop Plinko chips in at the top of the inclined playing surface and watch to see whether they stop at a bumper indicating an extinct species or fall into one of the slots for living species at the bottom.
   This cladogram Plinko wasn’t a game the preschoolers played, its point being a bit abstract. It’s for older children — and adults.
    But the 3- and 4-year-olds eagerly worked together to assemble puzzles of a mastodon’s tusk, tooth and femur near a photo of another “mad paleontologist,” Dr. Katy Smith, at work. Smith is also the museum’s paleontology curator and developed this portion of the exhibit.

‘Really gross’ helps
    Another favorite activity of the preschoolers was stirring up a mixture — in a white cup with solutions from a red jar and a blue jar — designed to mimic fish slime.
    “What we do is we try to target to the age range,” Logan said. “Because these kids are 3 and 4 years old, we did what they would consider most fun, which are things that they can visibly see a reaction in or that they can touch.”
    The bio above the slime experiment station is of Dr. Johanne Lewis. She teaches comparative physiology in Georgia Southern’s biology department and researches coping mechanisms of fish, among other things.
    The finished product, described as a “slime blob” in the instructions, is safe for play.
    “It helps even more if it’s really gross,” Logan added.
    From Macon, she already has an undergraduate degree in anthropology from Georgia Southern and is on track to receive her master’s in archaeology and public history in May. Logan wants to work as a museum professional.
    Near a display that lets museum visitors sort artifacts such as spear points onto a timeline, a biography of “mad archeologist” Dr. Jared Wood completes the rogues gallery of research and discovery.
    The children visiting last week, like many others, also spent time at the permanent exhibit of the museum’s iconic mosasaur and venerable Vogtle whale.
    “There’s no more Vogtle whales, no more mosasaurs. They are extinct, all gone,” said Billy Tyson, a museum staff member who has just been named its visitor services coordinator.
    Besides teaching the meaning of “extinct,” he showed the children some other fossils before they dug for some themselves in the nearby sandboxes.
    Unlike the whale and mosasaur, which are fixed in place, the Mad Scientist Laboratory is in a room used for temporary exhibits. But the exhibit has been up since June 16. Some of its original elements have been removed or replaced.
    A design class, taught by Dr. Santanu Majumdar in the art department, designed features of the overall exhibit, such as the central geodesic dome. This highlights historic scientists, such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, on one side and has an activity for identifying unseen objects by touch built into the other.
    From the exhibit’s opening through Wednesday, 6,181 visitors had passed through the museum, including 4,244 walk-in visitors and 1,937 tour group members, GSU Museum Assistant Director Debbie Gleason said in an email.
    “This number will become much larger before the exhibit closes. ... We still have four more Mad Scientist Tours scheduled, and folks have been calling every day to squeeze in before it comes down,” she wrote.
    In a full year, the museum reaches about 16,000 people, including visitors to the building and those seen in outreach programs, Tharp said.

Big week for museum
    This week, the Georgia Southern University Museum will receive a special group of visitors as Statesboro hosts the Georgia Association of Museums and Galleries annual conference Wednesday through Friday.
    The conference is expected to draw 125–150 museum professionals from around the state.
    Meanwhile, improvements to the museum’s continuing exhibit on Camp Lawton, the Civil War prison camp near Millen, are being completed.
    After the Mad Scientist Laboratory is dismantled, it will be replaced by “The Great War that Changed the World, 1914–1918.” This exhibit on World War I is scheduled to open Feb. 17 and remain up until Jan. 24, 2016.
    Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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