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Magic of SciFest lasts through the weekend at the Science Center

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 15, 2010 - Sporting a Finnish accent, a shock of blond hair and a multi-colored lab coat open to reveal a loud T-shirt promoting a rockabilly band, Heko Montonen hardly seems a typical science teacher. As he energetically bounds back and forth in front of an auditorium packed with students, it becomes clear this is no ordinary science lesson.

"Step back a little," he tells a child demonstrating the relative distance of the furthest electron from its nucleic center if the mass of protons and neutrons were blown up to the size of a soccer ball. "A little more. A few more steps...

"OK. Now go three more miles," he says with a sudden smile as chuckles ripple through the auditorium. "Imagine three miles. That's where the outermost electron of an oxygen atom would be."

"Everything is presented in show business style," Montonen explains to a reporter later as he sets up between presentations. "That's one of the decisions we made in our science theater. First, you have to connect to the audience, get them interested. After that, it's time for content."

That pretty much sums up the ethos of SciFest 2010, a six-day array of exhibits and presentations presented by the St. Louis Science Center. This is the center's third year for SciFest, which is based on a model premiered by the Cheltenham Festivals, a charity in Britain that organizes a series of similar programs each year on science, art, literature and jazz.

"The purpose really is to present science in an accessible way for everyone, to show people that it is fun and that it's important to have a basic understanding of science and technology," said Beth McClure, the center's director of communications. "Science is everywhere and a part of our daily life and we think people should be informed. SciFest is a fun way to do it."

Montonen, who goes by his first name Heko when performing outside his native Finland, is the science circus director at HEUREKA, the Finnish Science Center. During his demonstration, entitled "Atoms are a Go," he puts out fire using invisible gases and demonstrates air pressure using balloons. The program climaxes with a tornado of flame.

"'Atoms are a Go' is the easiest type of show because it gives you permission to do whatever," said Heko, who has put on more than 3,000 performances in 10 countries around the world. "Any experiment I use, I can try to explain it on the atomic level."

SciFest began on Tuesday and runs through Sunday. The weekday programs have attracted about 5,000 students from dozens of area elementary, middle and high schools. They attended classes to learn how to design a roller coaster, identify frogs or understand the growing field of nanotechnology.

"We get to use our minds and our intelligence to be creative," said Grant Mercille as he takes a break from assembling small gears and axles during Thursday's "Robot Revolution" program.

The 12-year-old Zion Lutheran student from St. Charles County, wants to be an architect when he grows up. His mother Kim Mercille, a parent chaperone for the school's field trip, said she thinks the designing and problem-solving skills he acquires through activities like "Robot Revolution" will be valuable to her son later on.

"It's an excellent learning opportunity for the kids," said Mercille, who takes her family to the center a few times each summer. "It's a great asset for the St. Louis community and surrounding communities."

The robot-building course is typical of SciFest's offerings and purpose.

"The whole idea is to get kids interested and excited about the possibility of having a career in engineering, science or technology," said robotics coordinator Paul Freiling while supervising Mercille's group of about 35 children. "They are creating their own design and their own robot so they are taking something away that is their own creation."

Organizers expect another 15,000 visitors this weekend as SciFest shifts away from school programming and into programs for the general public. Sessions on Saturday will explore topics from the moon to honeybees to coral reefs.

Among the highlights:

  • Astrophysics professor Dr. Andrew Howell will examine the science behind the blockbuster James Cameron hit "Avatar."
  • Representatives of the St. Louis baseball Cardinals and football Rams will talk about protective equipment and staying healthy during athletics.
  • Dr. Marcus Eriksen will share details of taking a 2,000-mile, five-month trip down the Mississippi River on a raft composed of 232 plastic bottles.

On Sunday, the St. Louis Blues will explore the physics of hockey while various experts will look at topics ranging from cheese making, algae and string theory, to climate change, urban chicken farming and the therapeutic benefits of music.
Tours of the Monsanto-sponsored "urban farm" will be available during both days.

Saturday evening will be "Family Fun Night" with events touching on everything from wine fermentation to "Grossology," which "demonstrates the science of disgusting, oozy body things." A magician will cap off the evening.

"The weekend sessions are geared more toward adults but they are also interesting for kids," said Maria Totoraitis, public relations coordinator. "The hands-on experiences are just as exciting for little kids as for an adult."

Regular Science Center features, such as the Science Cafe, the OMNIMAX Theater and Segways rides, will remain available during SciFest.

Day passes are $10 for adults, $6 for children for non-members. The price is half off for Science Center members. Evening events are extra although Saturday's "Family Fun Night" is free.

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.