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Explo Learning Festival 2014: An Afternoon to Remember

Our mission was to introduce families to what learning (hands-on, project-based) looks like at Explo. Two hours later, with hundreds of children racing around to check out each activity, we’d say we accomplished our goal.

“You know,” one parent says, “our kids go to a fairly progressive school, and they’ve been to all sorts of summer programs, but we’ve never seen anything like this. Alright, I’ll tell you the truth: we came because of the hovercrafts. But now they can’t decide if they like the Laser Maze, the rockets, or the pendulum art the best. It’s amazing! I don’t think they’re ever going to want to leave.”

Next Explo Learning Festival:
April 12, 2015, 1-4pm

Our first Learning Festival was such a success that we're doing it again! This time the festival will be open longer, we'll be offering even more options, with new booths, more space (the festival is moving to a larger gym at Wheaton), and more fun. More details will be available in early March!

On this blustery, cloudy Sunday, we’ve taken over Emerson Gym in Wheaton College’s Haas Athletic Center, setting up ten different activity and learning stations around the room (with refreshments out front). And for two hours, 600 parents and their children get to explore, experiment, and discover to their heart’s content.

3, 2, 1… Blast Off!
At a giant table covered with tubing, colored paper, and tape, students and parents hunch over and get down to the serious business of building a rocket.

Behind a giant net and facing an even bigger target, three students stand shoulder to shoulder, rockets and launchers at the ready. Decked out in pink, blue, yellow, gold, and green, the rockets are prepped and ready, though whether the rockets will be able to hit the target let alone reach it remains to be seen. The three students adjust the height and directionality of the launchers, hoping to hit on the best possible trajectory.

“Rocket launchers!” Jesse Parent says. “Are you ready? Once you have set your rocket in place, pump [the air pumps] until you hit 20 p.s.i. Okay, now hold your hand over the launch button. Don’t push it yet! On my count: 3-2-1, launch!”

“Yeah!” the student in the middle says. “Mine made it!”

The Wonder of Whale Blubber
Looking up at the life-sized inflatable baby Right Whale floating above their heads, two girls get ready to stick their hands into giant buckets of ice water. On their right hands, a regular rubber glove. On their left, a special pair of gloves, one inside the other, with “whale blubber” (vegetable shortening) acting as the insulating layer.

“Do you know what whale blubber is?” Danielle Gendron, an Explo staff member, asks the girls.

“It’s fat!” one says.

“Exactly. Now put your hands in the water and tell me what you feel.”

Hands in, the girls take a minute to gauge their reactions. “This hand [the right] feels really cold, but the other one feels warm.”

“That’s how whale blubber works,” Danielle says. “It’s like an extra layer of protection underneath their skin. So do you think whale’s are warm or cold?”

“Warm,” one girl says, “because they’re wearing the blubber all over.”

Decisions, Decisions
Behind the two girls, a mother and daughter approach, holding CD hovercrafts and unsure which station to head to next.

“Look at the whale!” the mother says.

“I know,” her daughter says. “It’s awesome. I want to try the whale blubber next but…”

“Do you want to go to the Laser Maze first?”


Beating the Laser Maze
It’s a giant box frame made of PVC pipes, with an intricately woven web of strings masquerading as the lasers. To the students standing in line, waiting to pit their stealth and smooth moves against the lasers’ “lethal” touch, it’s a challenge they want to try and master again and again.

“Do you know your mission?” Megan Campbell, Explo staff member, asks the first student in line.

Holding a card that shows only one part of a code — the question “What do you have to break before you can use it?” — the student shakes his head “No.”

“The only way you’re going to decode the rest of it is by surviving the maze and getting safely to the Decoder on the other side. Be careful; your mission depends on it.”

Clutching the card in one hand and trying to figure out the best way in, he hesitates only for a moment before climbing in head first. Careful to keep his arms and head tucked in, so as not to snag them on any lasers beaming overhead, he picks his way across, scaling one set of lasers just as he ducks underneath another. He makes it, and rushes to place his code in the UV Black Light Decoder.

The answer? “An egg.” Mission accomplished!


Spinning a Pendulum of Art
Just two stations over from the Laser Maze, standing quiet and still on step stools, students watch what’s spinning before them in awe.

On each of the three pendulum tables, two arms weighted down with 20-pound weights converge where they meet the pen. Below it, a third pendulum, topped with sheets of square white paper, stands temporarily still.

“This moves in both directions,” Anna Huger, Explo staff member, says to the student standing next to her. “Once you feel it going on the direction you want it to move, you can let go. And don’t worry — the pen won’t touch the paper until you let it go.”

The student lets go, and the pen starts moving, seemingly in both directions at once. “Watch it as the line it’s drawing gets smaller,” Anna says. “Because once it gets really small, it’ll reverse direction and start getting really big again.”

Mother and son stand transfixed, watching the pen create a mathematically symmetrical piece of art as the pendulums swing in unison below.

“Now we’re going to move the surface the pen is drawing on,” Anna says, “so all three pendulums are swinging in different directions. Lower the pen when you’re ready.”

A moment passes. “This is mesmerizing, isn’t it?” the mother asks.

Her son laughs. “Yeah!”

Alright, I’ll tell you the truth: we came because of the hovercrafts. But now they can’t decide if they like the Laser Maze, the rockets, or the pendulum art the best. It’s amazing!

Future Scientists
One mother, standing off to the side, waits for her three daughters, who are currently elbow deep in construction paper and rocket parts.

“They love science,” she says, “and they love doing experiments. So this is like heaven for them. I don’t think they’ll even notice me until the festival closes and it’s time to go. I’m so glad we came!”

Hovering on Thin Air
Next to the course where students young and a little older are finding out what it feels like ride a hovercraft and glide on top of a cushion of air (“That was awesome!!” one student says), a fifth-grade girl is learning exactly what that means — and how it all works.

“Do you know the difference a hovercraft and an airplane?” Parker Woodworth, a member of Explo at Wheaton’s faculty, asks a student.

“An airplane flies up in the sky, but a hovercraft is like flying right on the ground,” the student says.

“That’s exactly right,” Parker says. “Do you know why that is?”

“Not really.”

“It’s because a hovercraft floats on a cushion of air that pushes down so it can move over the Earth,” Parker says. “Here, let me show you what I mean.”

Blowing up a balloon and attaching it to the top of a sports bottle cap glued to the center of a CD, Parker asks the student to take it in hand and place it on the table. Nothing happened. Then, he asked her to squeeze the sides of the bottle cap, and give the whole contraption a little push. “Wow,” she says, as her CD hovercraft skates across the table on a pillow of air. “That’s cool.”