CHAMPAIGN — Electricity is not my strength. I use it, I appreciate it, I believe in conserving it, but I really don’t understand how it all works. I don’t even like to change a light fixture without consulting an electrician.
A new interactive exhibit at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum is designed to teach kids about electricity — specifically, how new technologies can help consumers manage their electricity consumption.
The "Smart Grid" exhibit, which opened last weekend, focuses on electricity production and delivery. Visitors can learn about balancing energy costs with concerns about the environment, and view the impact of renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
Pretty serious stuff. As you might guess, it’s not really designed for preschoolers but rather older elementary students or even middle-schoolers. Museum officials wanted an exhibit that would keep kids coming back even after they outgrow the castle, dinosaur dig or sand table.
At first glance Smart Grid is a bit intimidating. The two-story exhibit is set up in the curved lobby area ringing the main theater, and the walls are covered with posters full of facts about energy and electricity costs.
But there are plenty of hands-on activities, as young visitors found out on opening night.
Particularly popular: the exercise bike that can power a halogen light, fluorescent light or even a streetlight, depending on how fast they pedal. (Bonus: they get in some exercise, too.)
Other features let kids do something our parents always warned us not to do: play with electricity.
— Load mini solar panels with light, then plug them into small bulbs to see if they light up.
— Use solar panels to power race cars, although Museum Director Sonya Darter said the panels work better outside in sunlight.
— Experiment with three small wind turbines to see which design produces the most energy.
— Generate power by hand-cranking a battery, or see how their own bodies conduct electricity through a "hand generator."
— Build a sound-activited switch and other devices with Lego-type components.
But the centerpiece of the exhibit is "Mission Smart Grid," where kids can use a Smart Board to act as a utility control-room engineer. They can choose a "mission folder" that gives them instructions for a specific scenario; or they can manipulate conditions to cause outages, blackouts or even a total system failure, then boost production to restore power.
They can also experiment with different energy plans and see how much prices change depending on when and how they use energy. One example: does it cost more to use your Wii on a plasma television from 8 to 10 p.m. or 8 to 10 a.m.?
There’s also a play kitchen featuring energy-saving appliances, and the museum hopes to add a water wheel to let kids experiment with hydrogen power.
Orpheum Board member Mike Somers helped set up the exhibit with his children Lainey, 6, and Justin, 8.
"So far they liked to pedal the bicycle and are very intrigued by the solar car," he said.
The exhibit was funded by a grant from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement at the University of Illinois, and is a collaboration with the Office for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education.
And in case you’re wondering (as my daughter did) what became of the giant "Picture People" camera that used to be in the lobby? It's been moved outside.
If you go:
Orpheum Children's Science Museum, 346 N. Neil St., C. Phone: 352-5895
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, 1 to 5 p.m. weekends. Closed Mondays.
Admission: Children $3 (ages 2 to 18), adults $4.
Photo: Lainey Somers, 6, tries out one of the wind turbines in the new 'Smart Grid' exhibit at the Orpheum Children's Science Museum in downtown Champaign.