Sheets of black plastic protected two walls of the Buffalo Museum of Science’s grand hallway from 12-foot explosions of Diet Coke and Mentos candies, one of the more popular messy concoctions created during the museum’s first-ever MessFest.
Before the soda geyser finale on Sunday afternoon, the young man in charge kidded the crowd, warning, “If you get a little wet, it’s not my fault. You came to the show.”
Stefanie Campos, 10, was sitting close enough to the makeshift stage to get sprayed when the mint candies slid into the bottle of soda, reacted with the carbon dioxide and aspartame and shot cola to the ceiling.
The crowd oohed. Stefanie, who was visiting the museum for the first time with her family, was impressed by how high the cola spray went. “I wanna come back,” she said.
Her mother, Brandy, had enjoyed the children’s reactions to the excitement from the moment they passed the mastodon skeleton by the entry. “Just seeing their faces when we walked in ...” she said with a smile.
The museum, which estimated the crowd at about 3,200 on Sunday, was full of parents and children streaming through all four floors and stopping to play in exhibits along the way.
They drew pictures with crayons that glowed orange under black lights. Young science fans dutifully wore protective plastic glasses as they pressed into a table where a woman in a white coat and gloves held a frosty bowl of liquid nitrogen. In the “Shaving Cream Chaos” room, one curious boy pressed his face directly into a board coated with the foam.
“Making a mess is a great way to the hook, to get kids interested in science,” said Karen Wallace, director of learning and interpretation at the museum.
She was manning the “Oobleck ‘Slime’ Run,” a trough filled with a thin mixture of water and cornstarch. If you walked across quickly while barefoot, the sliminess just touched the skin. But if you went slowly, your feet sank and the paste stuck to the skin.
The slime was acting like both a solid and a liquid. The lesson here: “Science isn’t black and white,” Wallace said. “There are a lot of grey areas. This is one of the grey areas.”
By early afternoon, Jordan McGuire, 9, estimated she had walked, sometimes on both hands and feet, across the Oobleck path at least 10 times. “It’s like slimy and gooey and it feels cool,” she said, pausing with her friend Emily to explain why MessFest was fun. The girls liked making their own putty and watching an eruption of vinegar and baking soda from a 3-foot volcanic dome.
“You get to learn about science. You get to do cool experiments,” Jordan said.
Her mother, Kara, sat nearby in a folding chair and watched as children paraded across the slime.
The McGuires visit the museum every couple of months and they like how the museum has increased its interactive exhibits, an approach that has led to a tripling of the membership in the last three years.
This makes science seem a lot more fun than when Kara McGuire was going to school in the 1980s.
“It keeps her (interested) in it and that’s something I don’t want to lose,” McGuire said. “And if she wants to be a scientist, this is the perfect place to bring her.”
In the shaving cream room, Aiden Spears, 10, played with foam that filled a table basin. “I like the way it feels. How it’s smooshy and slimy.”
As he talked, he made peaks with the foam. This was cool, too. “You get to touch stuff,” he said.
At the liquid nitrogen station, docent Mary Hughes blew up a balloon and stuck it in a bowl of liquid nitrogen, which she said was a frosty 346 degrees below zero. Children standing at the edge of the table were transfixed.
“I’m going to make a prediction that it will pop,” said one boy. But instead, the cold withered the balloon and transformed the air inside into watery oxygen. “That is liquid air right there,” Hughes said.
DonJon Richardson, 9, kept close to the table’s edge as Hughes spoke. “If you keep your hand in liquid nitrogen long enough, it will freeze,” he observed afterward.
DonJon came with his brother, parents and, as the museum recommended, a change of clothes. He had changed into his fresh plaid shirt because his brother had wiped glowing orange crayon on him.
As the afternoon wound to a close, the staff braced for the cleanup. Brian Enright, science learning director, figured it would take a couple of hours.
And that, said Enright, is one of the lessons of science. “Science doesn’t have to be in the lab. Science is everywhere and a lot of times it is really messy.”