By Robert Peterson
For boys who grew up with Pac-Man and Super Mario World, visiting the Liberty Science Center is like being turned loose in a high-tech candy store. Everywhere you look there's a treat.
That's why the Patriots' Path Council in New Jersey has no trouble signing up 2,000 Cub Scouts and their parents each year for weekend overnight "camp-ins" at the science center in Jersey City, across New York Harbor from lower Manhattan.
The campers arrive on Saturday after the center closes to the public, spend the night sampling the center's science riches, bed down in their sleeping bags in the carpeted halls, and awake to see the sun rise over the Statue of Liberty and the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
At Liberty Science Center (and most other modern science museums), the days of "don't touch" are long gone. Visitors are invited to press buttons, manipulate equipment, perform before a TV camera, or climb a wall at almost every turn.
There are some exceptions. You wouldn't want a "please touch" sign on the science center's collection of tarantulas, scorpions, or boa constrictors, or on the stingray in the marine display.
Even so, the "bug zoo" on the environmental display floor was a busy site at the camp-in during the last weekend of January 1999.
Asked what he liked best about the center, Wolf Cub Scout Michael Allen of Pack 6, chartered to St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Chatham, said: "I enjoyed the bugs most. They're just cool."
Webelos Scout Michael Johns of the Mountain Lakes Community Church's Pack 10 was also partial to the wildlife. "I like snakes and I like spiders," he said, frowning at a terrarium of particularly large and repulsiveto himcockroaches.
Michael said he was having a great time.
"I think it's both the attractions in this place and the mystique of staying out at night," said his mother, Stephanie Johns. Like most of the other campers, she and Michael had been there before, either with school groups or at Cub Scout camp-ins.
At the January camp-in, the Patriots' Path Council passed the 10,000-visitor mark for the six years it has conducted camp-ins. Camper No. 10,000 turned out to be Frank Wieczorek, a denmate of Michael Allen in Pack 6.
Council program director Bob Morris, who has administered all the camp-ins, bestowed several gifts on Frank, including a free week at the council's summer camp after his graduation into Boy Scouting in the spring.
The Liberty Science Center offered about 250 exhibits and hands-on experiences in the general fields of invention, health, and the environment. Probably the most popular interactive opportunity was Virtual Sportsa chance to challenge computerized "players" in soccer, basketball, table tennis, and racquetball.
In virtual soccer, for example, a Cub Scout stood 15 feet from a screen that showed his image in front of a soccer goal as he fended off shots fired at him on the screen. As the real boy jumped around to block shots, his image jumped around, too. "Cyber Pong" and "Stop That Racket" were played in similar fashion.
"Virtual Hoops" was less popular than the soccer game because the basketball images were a bit clunky. Said Webelos Scout Frank Reder of Chatham's Pack 6, "Most kids played soccer because the basketball exaggerates your movements too much."
If Virtual Hoops was a bit disorienting, it had nothing on another big attraction, the Touch Tunnel. The tunnel was a pitch-black maze through which kids crawled, compensating for the loss of sight by using their senses of hearing, smell, and touch.
There was also a line of boys all evening waiting for a chance to ride the Tri-Axis Astronaut Trainer. While in a standing position, they were strapped into the trainer at their feet and waist and then rotated and turned upside down, downside up, and sideways for several minutes as they grasped the framework with their hands.
When they were upside down, they could look up into the center's atrium and watch the spectacular Hoberman Geodesic Sphere expand and contract robotically, unfolding from 4 1/2 to 18 feet in diameter.
After a tummy-turning ride on the astronaut trainer, Cub Scout Kyle Fierravanti of Pack 144, chartered to Pompton Valley Presbyterian Church in Pompton Plains, pronounced it "a lot of fun." Nearby, Cub Scouts could "pilot" a plane on an Air Force flight simulator, experiment with fiber optics and laser beams, try to solve spatial puzzles, and finger-paint with computer-mixed colors on a screen.
Elsewhere in the science center, Cub Scouts could study such power sources as wind, water, ocean currents, the sun, and geothermal heat.
Staff member Katherine Dougan entertained small groups with a demonstration of static electricityliterally standing their hair on end and popping puffed rice cereal out of their open hands.
Dougan also presented a show developed by the Louisville (Ky.) Science Center on the wonders of the human hand.
In the invention hall, the boys experienced the principle of gravity by hefting three bowling balls. One, representing gravity on Earth, weighed 16 pounds. Another, showing gravity on the moon, weighed only two pounds, while the planet Jupiter's ball weighed 40 pounds.
The campers saw a 3-D movie called "One Ocean: Our Threatened Waters," which dramatized pollution of the seas. At the camp-in finale on Sunday morning, they viewed "Mysteries of Egypt," starring Omar Sharif, on a six-story-high IMAX screen.
The Liberty Science Center opened in January 1993 and began offering camp-in programs for area youth groups a year later. The Patriots' Path Council began sending boys and parents immediately.
"We're probably their best customer," said council program director Bob Morris, with a laugh.
A Scouting magazine contributing editor, Robert Peterson lives in Ramsey, N.J.
Quality Time for Boys, Parents
Like camp-outs, camp-ins are quality time for Cub Scouts and parents. Greg Helfrich Sr., whose son Greg Jr. is a Webelos Scout in Chatham's Pack 6, said: "Our pack camps out every year. But this is my first camp-in, and it's been great." After a night in a sleeping bag on the floor, he said, "It was wonderful to see the sun coming up over New York."
Mark Reder, whose son Frank is also a Webelos Scout in Pack 6, added: "We don't often have a chance to spend a whole night and day with our kids. It's something you remember."
Many Science Centers Offer an Overnight Camp-In Program
The Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., is one of many such facilities that welcome youth groups for overnight camp-ins.
A 1998 survey by the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) found that 177 of its member institutions in 41 states have overnight programs.
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