Meet The Lab That’s Run by Kids

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The kids walked up to the bar, sat on a stool, and checked out the menu. Behind the counter, a cheerful staff member explained more about the current selections and took the kids’ orders. It was time to decide: Magnetic slime? Bubble-ology? Floating rainbow?

It’s not often that kids get to pick from a “bar menu,” but this is no ordinary bar—this is the Experiment Bar, one of the main attractions of the Children’s Science Center, which opened The Lab this summer at Fair Oaks Mall. And as with other features of the museum, the Experiment Bar offers kids the chance to conduct handson science experiments of their choosing. In keeping with its theme to “explore, create, and inspire,” it’s a place that, to a great extent, lets kids run their own activities.

The Lab at Fair Oaks Mall is the first physical location for the Children’s Science Center, which for a few years served the community as an all-volunteer “museum without walls.” While its leaders still plan to visit schools and participate in (or host) community events, The Lab at the mall now offers families in Northern Virginia the opportunity to play and explore (and learn) every day of the week.

meetthelab3This is the first children’s museum in Northern Virginia devoted to hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and it’s a popular destination: in its first month of operations (the soft opening was in late June, with the official ribbon-cutting taking place on July 20th), the museum welcomed more than 5,000 visitors and had 200 new families sign up for memberships.

The center, geared toward children ages 2–12, features four “experience zones” of exhibits and activities:

Experiment Bar: At this modern bar, families can select from a current menu of STEM activities and conduct experiments themselves. Staff members provide a kit with all the necessary items, including instructions, scientific principles, and discussion prompts for each experiment on small electronic tablets. Staff is available to answer questions or help, but visitors get to explore on their own, either individually or in groups. The “bar” is actually two sections, with combined room for approximately three dozen visitors.

Discovery Zone: This area for hands-on learning is designed for budding scientists ages five and under but still attracts children of all ages.

The Discovery Zone features a special table for light and shadow play, “discovery boxes,” and the hugely popular Imagination Playground giant building blocks.

Tinker Shop: A space for making, creating, and building based on open-ended design challenges, the Tinker Shop is like a workshop for little ones. Kids can not only build things out of circuits and robotics but can also design crafts to test in a vertical wind tube. Here they can make art, machines, or even music.

Inspiration Hub: At the Inspiration Hub, visitors can explore hands-on exhibits of real-world STEM applications to test different ways to power a city, configure options in a gear table, and more. They can also help design future exhibits on a computer. Behind this room is the “Garage,” the room (with a real garage door that closes) used for parties and events, as well as for other daily activities such as constructing with KEVA planks.

The Children’s Science Center also hosts birthday parties and special events. This summer it offered its own summer camps and hosted field trips from day camps around the metro area. The museum also books private parties for exclusive use of the entire Lab facility after hours. For the fall, it’s added curriculum days for local teachers, school field trips, and a Discovery Days program (through a Cisco Foundation grant) offering field-trip scholarships for Title I schools. Also new is a Budding Scientists program for kids ages 2–6. The Friday morning program for preschoolers and their caregivers is designed to get kids involved in STEM activities early in life.

Kids aren’t the only ones who get to have fun: look soon for a “Grown-Ups Only” night for adults who’d like to come and experience hands-on science at the Lab, says Dorothy Ready, the center’s marketing manager. Later this fall, there will also be special seasonal fun, she adds, with activities related to Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Admission to the museum is $12 per person (free for children under age two). Family memberships start at $140 and include unlimited admission, plus discounted or free admission at other museums nationally through reciprocal programs.

The Lab of the Children’s Science Center is a modern, state-of-the-art, 5,400-square-foot facility. It expects to attract 60,000 visitors per year, and this is just in its current phase: the eventual plan is to have the Children’s Science Center build a full-scale, 53,000-square-foot museum in the area. Slated to open in 2019 or 2020, that museum will be located in the Kincora development in Dulles, Virginia. Learn more at childsci.org.

PHOTOS BY TC COFFEY, BIG BASH PHOTO