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By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001
What started in the '50s in a garage as a place to help kids and Boy Scouts with their science projects is now a great resource for parents and their children. Call the Science Center of Pinellas County to get a copy of its latest newsletter. You may be surprised at all the classes, field trips, summer camps, laser shows and birthday parties it has scheduled for our kids.
Kindergarteners learn about the human body. Second-graders spend a week studying sharks. Fourth-graders can mix potions that fizz and bubble. And sixth-graders take pictures and develop their own film. These are some of the activities coming up at the Science Center's spring break camp April 9 to 13.
The spring session of "preschool science" started last week and I can tell you even a 2-year-old can get something out of the Science Center. My daughter, Charlotte, who is just barely 2, was engrossed for a whole hour and that's even with her mother forgetting the almighty goldfish and juice cup.
The first of the three Thursday morning "Meet The Animals" classes was about warm-blooded ones. The 12 children sitting on carpet squares or in parents' laps took turns going up to touch hamsters, bunnies, ferrets and a cast of many more.
Instructor Sue Maxemow asked the children to describe how each animal felt after they touched it. After soft, furry, bumpy or cute, she always got them to agree that it was also warm.
Charlotte ran full speed to Maxemow and the animal in her lap each time her name was called. But when she gave an eager pat to Summer, the African pygmy hedgehog and found him not as soft as the other bunnies and hamsters she looked as if her whole world had fallen apart. He was warm but certainly not soft. She ran back to my lap claiming the pokey animal had given her a boo-boo.
Of course, it had not, but that's what you call hands-on learning. She may not be able to explain the theory of relativity any time soon, but the next day she petted our basset hound and told me with a big smile that he was soft and warm. She added that he was not pokey.
"They absorb everything. Sometimes they retain it and sometimes they don't," Maxemow said. "I feel it gives them a foot in the door and teaches them to question things. Next time we'll do cold-blooded animals and they'll get to touch and see that those animals are scaly and cool to the touch."
Tori Sturz took her 2 1/2-year-old son, Ryan, to the preschool class based on how much her 10-year-old daughter has enjoyed the science center classes and camps.
"I didn't expect him to come out quoting the animal history facts, but it's a good introduction. I think there's more to learning than just the information," she said. "He's learning to socialize, learning to take turns, learning to sit still."
There are two more preschool sessions for ages 2 to 4 March 29 and April 19 that have a few openings left. The cost is $5 per parent and child team. Be sure to bring two things: a camera and wipes for cleaning hands.
More than 22,000 school children visit the Science Center on field trips each year. Classroom teachers choose two workshops from a long list of topics including magnets, astronomy, marine science and rocket building.
"They come here and they learn it hands on. It's very important to us to enhance what they learn in school so they keep an interest in science as they grow up," said Cindy Paquin, spokeswoman for the Science Center. School groups always like the 30-foot-high planetarium that simulates the solar system.
"They leave here excited about going home to tell their folks which way to look to see this red planet or when they can look for Venus," Paquin said.
The newest feature of the Science Center, which is just past Tyrone Square Mall on 22nd Avenue N, is the Indian village opening March 24. The village, with two huts built out of wood and palm leaves, will replicate life in the 1500s for Indians in Florida. It will include shell tools, canoes, pottery, clothing and more. There will also be a digging pit for children to look for mock artifacts.
On opening day and at other scheduled times the Indian Village will host demonstrations on basketmaking, open fire cooking, Indian tattoos, children's games and potterymaking.
The village was a joint project between the Science Center and the Central Gulf Coast Archaeology Society built with various grants. The Science Center itself is a non-profit organization that operates on grants, donations and the fees it charges for programs.
Its small campus also includes a garden with the "Walk of States" made up of 50 stepping stones with each state's name, flower and bird etched into them. It's far from the technology and glitz of Disney's Epcot or even what our kids see on the computer, but I think kids would still love to hop from state to state looking at the flowers and birds. While the Indian village replicates life 500 years ago, we can tell them the "Walk of States" shows how Mom and Dad used to learn things in a time almost as long ago to them.
The Science Center has nine full-time instructors, all with teaching backgrounds. When it runs camps throughout the summer many teachers on break are added to the staff, which grows to about 30.
"The teachers are our magic secret. They are the best part of the science center," Paquin said. "Without them, we couldn't serve the community the way we do."
The center is now registering children for its Spring Break camp. Prices start at $60 for members and $70 for non-members for the one-week session. Programs last until noon or 3:30 each day depending upon age. Extended care is available for an additional $2 for morning care from 8 a.m. to 9:30. Afternoon care from 3:30 to 5:30 costs $3 per day.
Summer camps will be priced similarly and are open to children entering kindergarten and older. The schedule of eight different one-week sessions should be completed in May. Older kids' camps include field trips to Sea World and Cape Kennedy, snorkeling, kayaking at Fort De Soto and model rocket building. Younger children will learn about animals and marine life and grow their own plants.
You don't have to be enrolled in a camp or class to visit the Science Center. It's open to the public weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call to check weekend hours, which change based on other events. You can reach the center at (727) 384-0027.
- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at Oliviachar@aol.com; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.