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Kids Encouraged to Mess Around at Hands-On Science Museum

By Pamela Sosnowski

Most science museums feature exhibits that are meant for looking at, not touching. At Pensacola's MESS (Math, Engineering, Science and Stuff) Hall, visitors are encouraged to unleash their inner scientist and put their hands to work conducting experiments. The highly interactive and fun environment gets kids involved with how science actually works- and helps them retain that information, sometimes better than a classroom can.

"Rather than the museum serving as the science expert, we encourage visitors to think scientifically, asking their own questions and making their own discoveries," explains the museum's founder and executive director, Megan Pratt. "Engaging learners in their own experiments helps them develop ownership of the process and can encourage them to delve more deeply into a topic."

One of the museum's most popular attractions is its "mess kits." Each day the museum offers up to 16 different mess kits, which change daily, to choose from in the areas of mathematics, physics, engineering, biology, and chemistry. Visitors order their preferred kit from a counter and receive a mystery box that they then carry to a table to open and explore. Each kit contains instructions and materials to conduct a basic experiment, but encourages the scientist to "mess around" with their own experimentation, creating different results. "We also provide an explanation of the science behind the activity," says Pratt.

Pratt and her husband opened the museum in 2012 after being inspired by the popularity of a Science Saturdays program run by the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition. Some of the permanent exhibits on display include Blown Away, where visitors design kinetic sculptures and test their strength in the wind, the Marble Run, where they can build a ball track using funnels and other components, and the Harmonograph, which creates artwork using the motion of pendulums.

The museum also hosts a variety of camps, classes, programs, and events during the year suitable for children as young as pre-K age to those in grade 6 and up. Upcoming events this month include Fossil Day, where participants get to uncover marine fossils from the Gulf Coast, and the Bat House Building Challenge, which is a nation-wide event to break the record for the number of bat houses built in a single day.

Pratt says the concepts learned at the MESS Hall can benefit children long after their schooling has ended. "At the most basic level, traits like perseverance and persistence are essential for almost any career," she says. "These aren't learned sitting in a lecture but rather in solving a problem. We all have heard the phrase, 'Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.'"

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