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Happy birthday, ScienceWorks

Second-grader Laurenne Lee was wide-eyed as she described looking out at the world from a giant bubble at ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum in Ashland.

"I was in the middle of a bubble," gushed the 7-year-old student from Mae Richardson Elementary School in Central Point. "You can put your hand right through it. But sometimes it pops."

Before getting fired up by the nearby plasma ball of electricity, Ashland first-grader Messiah Gilbert, 7, tried his hand at making spherical bubbles.

"Really cool," the budding scientist observed.

Chip Lindsey, 51, the museum's executive director, put the science learned in the "Bubble-ology Room" in slightly different terms.

"What the kids are learning about is bubble surface tension," he explained. "The cohesion of those molecules causes the film to get the minimum surface area to cover the volume."

The young students — about 10,000 now visit the facility annually — weren't born when the nonprofit science center was opened on Dec. 7, 2002, but the museum's mission remains the same, Lindsey said.

"Part of our job is to create that sense of wonder, that sense of engagement with the real stuff of the world," he said. "This is about figuring out how things work in the world. Not because someone told you but because you figured it out yourself."

A 10th birthday bash is planned from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at the museum, which now attracts more than 50,000 visitors a year. The public is invited at no charge.

"It will be a big thank-you for everyone who has supported us over the years," Lindsey said. "We want it to be as wonderful and quirky as the very first day ScienceWorks opened."

There will be a different explosion experiment every hour, he promised.

"We'll be imploding 55-gallon drums and seeing what happens when you have different metallic salts in hydrogen balloons and light them on fire," he said. "We'll be having good, fun science."

A science student from Medford's Madrone Trail Charter School who built a catapult will demonstrate his Old World weapon by chucking pumpkins across the lawn, Lindsey added.

"We will be celebrating with wonderful innovators in the area," he said.

The science center was the brainchild of Ashland residents Sharon and John Javna, who wanted to fill a void after the popular Pacific Northwest Museum of Natural History folded in the late 1990s. At the time, their son, Jesse, was 5 and their daughter, Sophie, was 2.

"We felt the gap in science education in the schools was something to be concerned about," Sharon Javna said. "We also wanted to give something back to the community."

The Javnas — she's an attorney, he a writer and publisher — started and funded a small science center in an available room in Ashland Middle School.

Encouraged by others to expand their little science center, they contacted a good friend in Seattle whose family's Kirlin Charitable Foundation later purchased the old museum building for the new center. The land is leased from Southern Oregon University.

"Our family took a tour around the country to find out what museums were like," Sharon Javna said. "We really didn't have a background in museums. I did a lot of talking to administrators and finding out what a board of directors really was."

Her husband took countless photographs of science exhibits to find just the right type needed to demonstrate the rich world of earth sciences.

"Then we put out a call for volunteers," she recalled.

More than 50 eager volunteers stepped forward at the outset, she said.

Among them was Ashland resident Mike Hersh, now 73, a retired aerospace engineer who continues to volunteer at the center. In essence, he is a rocket scientist who helped make propulsion tanks for rockets sending satellites into orbit.

He launched his volunteer effort by painting walls before ScienceWorks opened.

"I love kids and I love science," he said. "I'm really concerned in this budget-conscious world that we misprioritize. Science should be up at the top. It is far more important than a lot of things we spend money on."

Sandy Peck, a teacher from Mae Richardson Elementary School, said a field trip to the science center is a highlight of her students' school year.

"This is always their first field trip of the year — they can't wait to get here," she said. "They did a program today on magnets and electricity. They loved it. They have the materials for them to explore. It's very hands-on and open-ended."

There were also some older students on hand.

"It's just fascinating — it allows you to be a little kid again," said Medford resident Arlene Kornstad, 78, who, along with husband Roger, 82, explored the science of their youth.

"We made bubbles," she added with a giggle.

While the bubble exhibit is hugely popular, it is just one of some 100 interactive exhibits at the museum, most of them built either in the facility or by local craftspeople.

One exhibit, "Pedal Power," allows visitors to use a stationary bicycle to power an electric train. "Pulley Chairs" permits them to hoist themselves up in chairs by pulling on ropes which run through pulleys.

Last year, a 3,000-square-foot space was opened to provide room for a nano-technology exhibit by the National Science Foundation.

In addition to drawing students to the center, the museum is reaching out to schools through a program called Illuminating Science Inquiry.

"The thing that is unusual about ScienceWorks is how regional our reach is with our education program," Lindsey said. "They are coming from all over Southern Oregon and Northern California. Most of the schoolkids you see here are coming from outside of Ashland. They are coming from Klamath Falls, Grants Pass, Yreka, Mount Shasta."

The center now has more than 1,700 family memberships, with the largest number in Medford, followed by Ashland, then the San Francisco area, he said.

"When families leave, the parents often say, 'I didn't realize my son/daughter loved science so much,' " Lindsey said. "That means we have changed that child's life because the parents' perception of who that child is has been changed. That parent is now seeing that child as a scientist. It becomes part of that child's identity."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.