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Animal Mechanics

Mom, pop, and two boys stand in front of what looks like a carnival midway game. They madly pump away on hydraulic levers as four creatures skim across the playing field. But it's not a game; it's actually a demonstration of how squid move through water by jet propulsion. By proffering this and numerous other exhibits as games, the designers of the Robot Zoo, the new exhibit at the Museum of Discovery and Science, painlessly teach scientific principles to youngsters.

"That's the mission of the museum," says Joe Cytacki, director of projects and operations and the man responsible for bringing this show to the Fort Lauderdale museum, "to promote early childhood education through the use of animals and whimsical, fun ways of presenting them."

The Robot Zoo does that by gathering 8 animal robots and 16 associated hands-on activities into the upstairs gallery reserved for traveling shows. The robots are vast indeed; the giraffe has a 9-foot neck, the housefly has a 10-foot wingspread, and the giant squid has 18-foot tentacles. With cutaway sections added to these large proportions, the robots can demonstrate the biomechanical implications of various body parts -- in other words, how things work.

How do flies walk on the ceiling? Kids can try their hand at climbing a sticky surface to find out. Why does a chameleon change color? Children can don camouflage to see how they blend in. By aiming a "tongue gun," museumgoers learn how lizards catch insects. Young people might try hanging like a bat (average 7 seconds for a human, 24 hours for a bat). They may also try swatting flies, only to discover that flies move 12 times faster than humans.

Just to keep things in context, two or three times a day Bob Gall or a fellow exhibit-experiences educators brings out a live animal to mingle with the kids throughout the museum. It might be a snake, an owl, or a turtle. None of their robotic brethren is quite so mobile, though.

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Tomi Curtis

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