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The Warsaw Voice » Other » August 13, 2008
Education & Society
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Cracow Science Park: Garden of Experience
August 13, 2008   
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"What rules here? Physics," says the sign that welcomes visitors to the Garden of Experience, Cracow's interactive science park that is the first of its kind in Poland and has won an award in a competition for the best tourist site in the country.

The park comprises more than 50 interactive optical, acoustic and mechanical exhibits that are designed for adults as well as children and young people. Through interactive play visitors can familiarize themselves with the laws of physics and nature.

The park, named after Stanisław Lem, an acclaimed Polish 20th-century science-fiction writer, was partly financed by the European Social Fund under the EU's Equal Initiative operational program. It officially opened May 8.

Cracow's Garden of Experience is modeled after a similar facility in Nuremberg, Germany, although there is less variety among the German exhibits. The Cracow project is not only more varied but is set in natural surroundings, which distinguishes it from other similar parks in Central Europe. All the park's exhibits are prototypes that have been specially made for the site.

Marek Goł±b, Ph.D., a physicist from the Institute of Physics at Cracow's Jagiellonian University, designed the exhibits, which attempt to educate people through sensory experiences as opposed to traditional book-learning methods. What's more, the experiences available in the park are not even possible in a school physics laboratory. The dictum "Learning through Play" has proven to be both effective and successful. It takes some two hours to try out all the interactive exhibits and thereby collect some great experiences. Visitors gladly return to deepen their understanding of physical phenomena.

Hands-on experience

Within the Garden of Experience are interactive exhibits, designs and models that demonstrate the laws of physics and nature. Interaction is optical, acoustical and mechanical. The premise is that visitors can do experiments themselves. Visitors pre-book use of each exhibit, which has information in both Polish and English on the phenomenon it demonstrates and its causes. Instructor/guides are on hand to help.

"The visitor should feel that they are responsible for a given phenomenon, that they themselves created it," says Anna Krochmal, the park's director. "Our observations have shown that people prefer to experience things themselves rather than see a demonstration by an instructor. Nothing can take away the feeling of euphoria at a discovery, and thus they learn and remember much more. This is why, from the very beginning, we decided against guided tours. Each visitor can individually create a phenomenon, observe it themselves, and what's more, repeat it as many times as they want. More than once have we seen the pride on people's faces who, after a bit of help from an instructor, have managed to experience something by themselves and proceed to explain it to others."

The exhibits can be divided into three categories. In the first category, visitors physically experience phenomena. In the second they observe the results of their actions. In the third an instructor interacts with the exhibit for safety reasons and the visitor is merely an observer.

Newton's cradle and other attractions
Tactile experiences are based on gravity (swings), balance (spinning wheels and trampolines), phonics, water motion (turbines) and the senses (touch, hear and smell). The exhibits themselves, such as the breathing rectangle, magic reel, spinning crater, pipe bells, stone cymbals, Cartesian diver, and Newton's cradle, can be intriguing.

The most entertaining effects are to be found in the park's optics sector. For example, when walking between two parallel mirrors, we see never-ending reflections of ourselves in both directions. The phenomenon is based on the law of light reflection. The same law applies to a giant kaleidoscope, that, on entry into it, reveals multiple reflections and perfect symmetry. The periscope, on the other hand, gives completely different effects despite working to the same law of reflection.

Wheels spinning at different velocities provide a variety of visual effects. For example, a wheel divided into yellow and blue segments appears uniformly gray when spun. This is the phenomenon of color illusion caused by the inertia of the human eye. The additive color-mixing phenomenon is demonstrated by Newton's wheel, which, even though it is made up of seven colors, also appears uniformly gray when spun. Another spinning wheel takes on varying three-dimensional forms depending on spin velocity. This is the stereokinetic phenomenon.

Equally spectacular phenomena can be seen in the area of the park that demonstrates how water behaves in motion. The same water in different vessels will behave very differently when these are set in motion. Visitors can create a whirlpool and observe centrifugal forces at work. Meanwhile, the Cartesian diver perfectly demonstrates Archimedes' principle. The diver's depth in a long narrow cylinder and the volume of air he holds can be controlled. The same principle is used in submarines, which regulate the volume of air in their tanks to submerge or surface.

Newton's cradle demonstrates mechanical principles. Seven pendulums can be knocked together in a variety of ways to produce unexpected results. The laws of conservation of momentum and energy and the shock wave that passes through them govern the behavior of the pendulums. One of the most popular exhibits is the prism, although this is best experienced on sunny days. The refraction and dispersion of white light produces beautiful rainbows of color.

A diffraction grating produces similar effects but the colors appear in the opposite order to those within the prism. Light reflecting off a CD produces a rainbow in similar fashion.

Future plans
The park continues to increase the number of its attractions. Eventually there will be 60 exhibits and other attractions such as a viewing tower, the ascent to and descent from the top of which will be an experiment in speed and weight control. Future plans also include a pool with equipment that will demonstrate phenomena of the sea and water. There will also be a night path on which visitors will be able to observe phenomena that only happen once it is dark.

The Garden of Experience is set in six hectares of natural parkland, and is also used as a venue for music concerts.

According to biologist and physicist Katarzyna Le¶kiewicz, who is employed as a park instructor, it is worth spending some time in the Garden of Experience because it is simply entertaining. Le¶kiewicz is concerned that disinterest in physics among schoolchildren will have grave consequences for science in Poland in general and result in a lack of innovativeness and competitiveness in Polish industry in particular. For several years now universities and colleges have noted a drop in the numbers of students choosing technical studies to the gain of humanities departments. Poland's economy is experiencing an increasing shortage of engineers.

"Places like Cracow's Garden of Experience are designed to reverse this trend," says Krochmal. "When we hear schoolchildren extolling the wonders of what they have seen on leaving us we allow ourselves the hope that some of them may be interested enough to study science. And this is how we see our mission."

Ewa Dereń
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