Visitors to "Connections," a new interactive exhibit opening Saturday, may not believe they are in the same old Buffalo Museum of Science.
Light pours in through newly exposed windows on both sides of the rectangular third-floor room, formerly the dreary Bird Hall, illuminating what the museum calls "an active, highly visual learning environment full of natural light and natural textures."
Instead of static displays of stuffed birds, children and adults will find six staff-designed learning stations, each with computerized reference access and discovery activities.
Near the entrance is a "stream table" -- an oblong hollow box with a hose at one end and a drain at the other. By tilting it, junior scientists will discover how water flows and learn that things like flooding, dams and locks can increase, stop or alter the flow. Among the other features are a see-through ant colony, live animal and plant specimens, stand-alone and computer-connected microscopes, and items from Science Museum collections, which will be rotated every so often.
It is the manner in which these displays are meant to be engaged that will be the biggest change for visitors, said Karen Wallace, director of the Center for Science Learning, an umbrella program that also includes "Our Place in Space," which opened in 2003, and other fresh educational attractions.
"This is not just hands-on for hands-on's sake," Wallace said. "We want to get people to think like scientists -- to get excited about working in the natural world."
Children, parents and teachers alike can benefit from time spent here, said Winnie Smith, a staff member who was a teacher/trainer at the Discovery Center Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Once they learn to 'read' topics and specimens, they will be teaching each other," she predicted. "It's very empowering."
The idea is to make people hungry for more.
"We need repeat business," said Philip C. Ackerman, chairman of the museum board of managers, and "Connections" will be the magnet.
"This space is lighter and brighter, materials are more accessible," he said. "It's everything we want more of -- and need -- to attract people in this century."
To find out what features offered a "wow" factor, the museum opened "Connections" Jan. 1 as a pilot project. The latest educational research, along with suggestions from museum professionals, school administrators and researchers, were tested. Target groups and the public were invited to help evaluate and adjust content.
The result "is different than anything other museums are doing," said President David E. Chesebrough, who has led a determined and sometimes controversial campaign to reinvent the 144-year-old Humboldt Parkway institution.
It is also affordable -- an important consideration for today's financially strapped cultural organizations.
"We spent less money on this space than any other," Chesebrough said. "That's the challenge: How do you have affordable change that keeps people coming back?"
"Connections" is the museum's first "up charge" exhibit, meaning it will cost extra to get in. Members of the public will pay $3 and students $2.50 on top of regular admission. The exhibit will be reserved for school groups Tuesday through Friday morning through the end of the school year, and open to the public from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
The John R. Oishei and West Ferry foundations funded the exhibit.