Physics equals fun at annual U fair

The 16th annual Math and Science Fun Fair featured hovercraft rides for children.

Karlee Weinmann

On Saturday at Coffman Memorial Union, kids blasted off into a world full of innovation and experimentation.

For the 16th year, the University’s Institute of Technology Center for Educational Programs hosted the ­Math and Science Fun Fair for third- through seventh-grade students in an effort to expose them to science and its possibilities.

Perennial presenters offered, among other things, liquid nitrogen demonstrations and a chance to hold a human brain specimen. And for the first time, attendees could experience a hovercraft ride.

In its inaugural appearance at the fair, the NASA-funded Minnesota Space Grant Consortium extended its typical reach from college-aged people and faculty researchers to a younger set.

James Flaten, the consortium’s associate director who also teaches in the University’s aerospace department, brought two homemade hovercrafts to demonstrate friction-free motion.

Flaten built his first hovercraft in the ’80s and said through workshops and other demonstrations, similar devices have spread across the state.

Each of those at the event had a wooden base, a wooden seat and an air-blowing device – one hovercraft used a leaf blower. The air flowed through the plastic covering the bottom of the wooden base, lifting the apparatus from the ground.

One hovercraft had a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher attached, allowing riders to feel the kind of propulsion used with rockets.

Using a spinning bicycle tire as a gyroscope, children were also able to guide the hovercraft using basic principles of physics.

“I think they all liked the rockets,” Flaten said. “I think the people who tried the wheel (gyroscope) were surprised by it; it doesn’t look that impressive.”

Scott Gleason, 11, had been to the event before. He said he was impressed by his hovercraft experience this time around.

“It really felt cool. I’ve never done anything like it before,” he said. “I’m really into rockets.”

Event organizer and University alumna Kari Nonn said she was pleased with the turnout of 600-700 children and families.

She said the chemistry demonstrations, electric cars and hovercrafts seemed to be popular exhibits.

“The presenters pulled out all the stops with their presentations,” she said.

Third-grader Jack Hansen said he liked the display with liquid nitrogen in which presenters froze flowers and Jell-O, among other things.

“I like doing experiments with things and seeing how they react,” he said.

This year, the event was shorter and smaller than it has historically been – in hopes of creating a comparatively more intimate feeling, giving attendees more time to focus on specific exhibits, said Nonn.

Orhan Soykan watched as his children, aged 6 and 8, enjoyed the hovercraft demonstration.

Both he and his wife work in science and engineering.

“We’re both in the field, and we want (our kids) to be in the field,” he said.

Flaten said it is important to expose children to science-related activities early on, since the topic is often stigmatized in later education.

“I think we lose too many kids along the way,” he said. “We need to give people that are younger activities that are fun and still a little mysterious. Today we tried it, tomorrow we’ll explain it.”