The 2007 Beckman Institute Open House was a big hit with the thousands of visitors who crowded the building March 9th and March 10th, perusing almost 30 exhibits put on by Beckman faculty, students, and staff. Popular exhibits could be found in the atrium, the basement, and on the second and third floors of the Institute. More than 300 faculty members, students of all levels, and Institute staff volunteered to make Open House a success.
On Friday’s opening day, schoolchildren from across the state took part in Open House while Saturday was a day for many families to explore the world of Beckman Institute research. In a fashion typical of the interdisciplinary research approach at Beckman, exhibits from fields as different as psychology and physics or biology and engineering were displayed side by side during Open House. Neuroscience researchers at the Drugs, Exercise and the Brain display in the atrium had visitors shoot basketballs while wearing “drunk” glasses, while next door materials science researchers at the Stretchable Silicon exhibit used an interactive approach to illuminate this amazing new technology. As usual, the CAVE, the driving simulator, and the flight simulator were popular, while visitors were fascinated by new displays such as ants that use their powerful jaws to propel themselves through the air and a system that converts the written word into three-dimensional graphical scenes.
The Open House was also a fun and eyeopening experience for the Beckman faculty, staff, and students who created and worked at the exhibits. Here are some comments from some of the volunteers:
Beckman Fellow Magnus Andersson knows just how to handle an Open House crowd. Magnus, a postdoctoral research associate with the Autonomous Materials Systems group, was group leader for the AMS exhibit on self-healing polymers presented in their third floor laboratory.
“In a crowd like that you can always see the naughty kid. You take the naughty kid and put safety goggles and a lab coat on them. Then they do anything you want them to do. You just pick out the bad one have them be your little helper and they love that.”
Open House 2007 was the second go-round for Magnus.
“I love it. It’s so much fun and it’s a great opportunity to show off our lab. But in addition, it’s a great opportunity to train our students and get them to really understand what we are doing. We have 14 students on shifts in the lab and they are just taking turns explaining to the kids what we’re doing and showing them the demos and walking them through the lab. When you can explain it to kids that means you really understand it.”
Joseph Spagna is a postdoctoral researcher who is taking part in a Beckman seed proposal project that studies the powerful jaw mechanisms of the trap-jaw ant as inspiration for, as the seed proposal states, “design principles for generating, storing and releasing large amounts of force using small, simple materials.” Spagna and other team members at the group’s exhibit in room 1005 had a colony of the ants in a dish for visitors to check out, as well as videos of their amazing striking power. Spagna said the ants definitely had a ‘wow’ factor for visitors.
“They really like the videos and the word they use to describe the live ants is that they are big. They’re really surprised at how big they are. Other words that have been used are stinky because the colony has some dead bugs in there with the ants, and interesting because people are really surprised to see something jumping using its mouth.”
Spagna said he also received some good questions from the visitors.
“Some people have asked about the force– how much force the ants generate–and I like that question because I know the answer. People have asked what we try to do with the ants, what are the applications we are coming up with. Some of the things we’re thinking about are small energy storage and release devices for specific applications like micro suturing devices and really small actuators. I do enjoy it. It’s a project that people can really grasp. It has a charismatic animal, so it’s one of the more fun things to do.”
Charles (Chas) Conway is a staff member with the Imaging Technology Group (ITG) who did Open House demonstrations of two projects he’s been a part of at ITG. Conway has worked on ITG’s popular Bugscope educational outreach project and the NASA-funded Virtual Microscope project. Chas said he has been working on Bugscope since it began and Open House is a good way to let people know what is going on with that and other ITG projects.
“We are really starting from scratch in making a redesign and making Bugscope a lot better. So we’re just starting to debut that now. Hopefully we’re planting some seeds for some new Bugscope connections.”
Conway has worked three Open Houses now but this was his first stint at the ITG exhibit in the atrium.
“With the Virtual Microscope we do get a lot of people who are just looking but I’ve been amazed at how many people will take the time to sit down and listen. I can teach them things about integrated circuits or bugs and they learn a little bit as they go by and a lot of people seem to really enjoy that. Hopefully they’ll realize that we’re doing some things that they’ve only seen in movies.”
Eric Leshikar has now been through two Beckman Institute Open Houses as a graduate student with Denise Park’s Productive Aging Laboratory. This year he helped guide visitors through the lab’s exhibition in room 1624, explaining some of the research that goes on there. Eric said there is a definite difference in the crowds between Friday’s opening day and Saturday’s finale.
“Open House is very interesting because it is like a tale of two worlds. The Friday crowd usually is a lot more middle school to high school students and Saturday’s are more family oriented. They both have different sorts of goals. For example, on Saturday generally we have a lot of the families come in, so we get a lot more questions on those days. The parents are trying to build up scientific curiosity in their children.”
Amit Patel is a graduate research assistant with the Autonomous Materials Systems group who explained how selfhealing polymers work with the help of an animation video. Amit’s strategy for conveying the science to lay persons instead of his usual peer audience was to tell them how a self-healing polymer could, for example, self-repair a scratch on their car.
“It’s a little bit of an adjustment, but people pretty much get it. There are ways of connecting with them by explaining how applications they use in everyday life would benefit a lot from self-healing.”
This was Amit’s first Open House. He said it was a positive experience and one that he’ll take back into the laboratory. “It’s nice to see people get excited about what you do. When you are stuck in the lab you can get a little depressed when things don’t work. When you do these types of events where people actually see what you do and get excited about it, it is a morale booster.”
This article is part of the Spring 2007 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.