Kids discover space at Patterson Science Center

Jul. 30, 2014 @ 11:44 AM

Comets don’t fly by very often, but a group of children at Patterson Science Center this week got to see one being built and could touch it too.

Addie Jo Schonewolf, a science education specialist visiting from the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill, started by filling a trash bag-lined bowl with water, then allowed her eager volunteers to add dirt, Worcestershire sauce and glass cleaner. Then, Schonewolf pulled on large blue rubber gloves, opened a box and pulled out a brown paper grocery bag filled with something. She beat the bag with a hammer, and the children could hear whatever was in the bag cracking. The children ooh-ed and aah-ed when Schonewolf pulled out a steaming chunk of white rock from the bag — dry ice, frozen carbon dioxide. She dropped the chunk into the water, and immediately thick, white steam began bubbling up and over the sides of the bowl. The children excitedly reached out into the cold steam.

Schonewolf explained that this was, more or less, what a comet looked like, and the steam was carbon dioxide from the dry ice.

Zac Clement, 9, said, “I can’t believe if that we’re seeing carbon dioxide for real. I’m so telling my mom that I saw carbon dioxide today.”

The demonstration was part of the science center’s second five-day Minds On summer camp about astronomy. The students are learning about constellations, star legends, planets, galaxies, physics and whether there is life in space. On Tuesday, the students used laptops to look at the fall sky constellations such as Perseus and Andromeda. Then they used Play-Doh to create the solar system.

Emma Hamby, 10, said that she enjoyed the camp because her fascination for space lies with how much she can learn.

“I like how people are discovering more things about it, like maybe how there’s life on Mars and stuff,” Hamby said.

The children made 60 spheres of purple Play-Doh apiece. One sphere was cut in half to make Earth, and the other half was separated into quarters to make Mercury and Venus. Then, the rest of the spheres were combined to make the gaseous planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Every student had a different method of making their spheres. Ethan McLean, 11, took his time and was meticulous about making each one symmetrical and perfectly smooth. Zac, however, blazed through his spheres before going back and smoothing out some of the rough edges.

“This is starting to get pretty fun,” Zac said. “Look at how round this is. Now this is what I call round.”

When the children had to combine their spheres to make the larger planets, the real work began. Emma beat her Play-Doh to mush it together with her friends’s spheres. Meanwhile, Zac pummeled it with both fists.

When they were finished, they lined up the balls of Play-Doh in the order of their solar system. Looking down at the planets, so much of the Milky Way galaxy was missing, but as Autumn Soots, 11, said, no one will ever know how much space there is. The seven other planets around Earth are just the beginning.

“I like knowing that space just keeps on going and going,” Autumn said. “There’s always more to be discovered.”