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Students innovate at Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo

Stanford students test new prototype exhibits at one-day event

A pendulum that creates elaborate designs; a radar gun that shows kids the speed of their kicked soccer ball compared to that of a cheetah; and a hands-on fossil excavation -- those were among the nearly 20 exhibits that parents and children experienced for the first time at the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo on Wednesday afternoon.

The exhibition of prototypes was intended to test out new exhibits, some of which could be employed as the beloved local landmark undergoes a two-year renovation.

The makeover, which is expected to begin in spring 2017, could temporarily relocate the museum and zoo to Cubberley Community Center if the city agrees, JMZ Executive Director John Aikin said.

The current facility on Middlefield Road, which was built in 1940, is too crowded, Aikin said, attracting 150,000 visitors per year. The museum building, outside zoo and the yard total 21,500 square feet. The new facility would be 33,450 square feet and include a new 2,900-square-foot zoo-support building, which would open in 2019, Aikin said.

The planned $30 million renovation is being funded by donations, with a hefty portion coming from The Peery Foundation, which has given a $15 million challenge grant. So far, the JMZ has raised $22 million. Construction will begin when donations reach $27 million and after all city approvals have been granted, Aikin said.

But what to do with the museum and zoo operations during the two years of construction?

To address the interim period, staff has enlisted Stanford University's Human Values and Design class to create new exhibits and activities aimed at increasing kids' interactivity and encouraging generations of scientists to tinker and build.

As part of the class, teams of three to four students studied how parents and children use the museum and came up with prototype exhibitions, including interactive exhibits where kids can role play and work collaboratively while learning about scientific principles. Some of the ideas used at the temporary space could be incorporated into the new museum, JMZ Exhibit Director Tina Keegan said.

Students from the "Adopt a Ball" team Wednesday observed that kids could better track and engage with the tennis-ball maze already at the museum if they could color a tennis ball in any way they wanted. Another observation was that the kids tended to want to take the balls with them to play with while they explored the museum, so the next step might be to incorporate the ball as a token to be used in other exhibits, student Thomas Oser said.

Kelly Schmutte co-teaches the class with Manish Patel and David Kelley, founder and chairman of Palo Alto design firm IDEO. Schmutte said the students have come to observe multiple times and are developing their prototypes in a fluid and flexible way based on how kids interact with the exhibits.

One group sought to educate kids about nature and animals through anatomy (comparing animals to humans). Brian Nana-Sinkam and his group found that kids, especially boys ages 6 to 9, had boundless physical energy and spent a lot of time throwing balls from the other exhibit at each other.

The team devised a project in which a radar gun or speedometer measures the velocity of a kicked soccer ball or a thrown tennis ball, which could then be compared to the speed of a wild animal: a cheetah at 75 mph; a lion at 50 mph, and even the glacially slow-moving three-toed sloth at 0.003 mph.

"It's bridging the zoo and the science part," student Marisa Tashima said.

Aubriana Menendez, a Stanford junior, used her love for pendulums to help her team devise a display, "Pendulum Swing," filled with sugar that allows kids to create patterns on a large black surface as they swing the device.

"They can see how gravity and math interact in nature," Menendez said, adding that the goal was to also get parents and children involved in an activity together.

Menendez's group observed during a prior visit that, "If the parents were bored, they didn't want to go out of their way at the exhibit," she said.

Relationship building was also a goal for the "Popzoocicle" team. Their prototype allowed kids to create their own popsicle-stick animals using pipe cleaners and pre-printed animal heads and bodies. Once they create an "animal buddy," they can take it home, Marlon Antunez said.

Marie Pluvinage, another student, said a pair of tectonic plates with spaces for building structures made of lightweight blocks allows children to compete to build the strongest structure. But the kids took it one step further: After some time, they began to work collaboratively, Pluvinage said.

Many parents want their children to interact with other kids at the museum and zoo, one team found, so the students developed a prototype of a wearable vest that would light up and change colors and patterns when other kids are nearby. For the time being, the students put colored glow sticks on the vests that kids can exchange with one another, student Lex Schoenberg said.

The students' prototype exhibits were a hit with kids, parents and caretakers alike on Wednesday.

Four-year-old Arden and 6-year-old Zadie said they enjoyed an animal safari and the "Popzoocicles," with Zadie naming her hippo "Sally." Arden surprised everyone by making fins instead of legs with her pipe cleaners.

Arden's and Zadie's caretaker, Kelly Santos, said the three have come to the Junior Museum & Zoo before, but the ability to interact and play with new exhibits made the visit even more enjoyable.

While some student teams focused on play, Shivani Torres, Jordan Garcia, Will Sternlicht and Nico Shavando looked to improve the museum's bottom line. They said they'd like to see the facility always be a place where families can come for free, so their project looked for ways to make the organization more self-sustaining.

To that end, they created a video about what makes the museum and zoo such a great place by using the personal story of Trudi Wallick-Horrocks, the ambassador at the front desk.

"We found that there is a need to educate people," Torres said. "Many people we asked said they didn't know they could become members of the JMZ."

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