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Tuesday, October 03, 2023
The Science Festival at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery featured an array of vintage arcade style games that offered an opportunity for attendees of all ages to learn about science.

The Science Festival at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery featured an array of vintage arcade style games that offered an opportunity for attendees of all ages to learn about science.

A review of the Science Festival’s Arcade Night

Friday’s Science Arcade Night, part of the annual 4-day Wisconsin Science Festival at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, was a wonderful fusion of science, technology, games and fun. Families, couples and students all enjoyed what the event had to offer. True to the event’s name, the ring of large, clunky arcade games was one of the first sights that greeted the festival goers when they walked in— a charming and vintage scene. Nearby, several science-related board games were set up, including a game integrating disease outbreak and Star Wars.

As I walked further into the festival, the juxtaposition between old and new technology became evermore apparent. One of the main attractions was the Living Environment Laboratory’s HTC Vive, a virtual reality headset. Adults and children lined up to put on the black mask-like helmet, which generates a 3-D room that the user can walk around in and interact by using a handheld motion sensor controller. True to the theme of science, the “room” programmed into the headset was a Jedi training room, and the controller became a lightsaber. Players had 90 seconds to slice up as many mini-Death Stars, that popped out from grates in the “floor,” as they could with their humming lightsabers.

It was a surreal experience; after putting on the headset and headphones, the real world disappeared as the virtual world took its place. For 90 seconds, I forgot that I was spinning around in an empty square of space waving a controller at nothing —I really felt like I was walking around a room in a space ship, hacking and slashing at bouncing objects with my green lightsaber. Unfortunately, the second controller, which was supposed to give the user the power of the “Force,” was malfunctioning, but the experience was unforgettable all the same.

A section of the event was dedicated to the IceCube Neutrino Observatory detector, developed by University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists. A display of vertical strings of light, similar to the ones in Chamberlin Hall, modelled the neutrino-sensing strings of the real IceCube located in Antarctica. In front of the display, kids played a game of bean bag toss, with their bean bags representing the elusive neutrino particles that the IceCube strives to detect.

There were also other hands-on learning experiences, for example the gravity experiment. A blue trampoline was weighed in the center with a metal ball representing our sun. The gravity in our solar system was explained using marbles; we tossed them around the trampoline and watched how they spun and revolved around the “sun,” as a festival worker explained how they related to the planets in the solar system. When we tossed two marbles of different sizes close together into the circle, we saw the smaller marble stick to and revolve around the bigger one as the bigger one revolved around the “sun,” just like how our moon revolves around the earth. The big finale of the experiment was when we all tossed as many marbles as we could into the trampoline (to the excitement of all the young children) and observed how all of the remaining marbles eventually revolved in the same direction around the “sun,” similar to how all the planets in our solar system revolve around the real sun.

There were also some more unconventional displays. One of the most amusing games set up that night was a nutritional take on Whack-a-Mole —“Touch-a-Tuber.” Yes, tubers. A laptop showing a Whack-a-Mole game screen replaced with carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes was hooked up with real life carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Using a tin foiled club, the player had to touch (or whack) the root vegetables as the corresponding images popped up on the screen. A creative extension of the classic potato light bulb experiment, this game was a fusion of code programming and the electricity-producing reactions of the tubers’ acidic juices with the connected wires.

Another labor in creativity was a two-faced fortune teller machine. The head and shoulders of a two-faced mannequin were set up on an old-fashioned wooden cabinet. The mannequin was artfully crafted, both faces dressed in antique jewelry and vintage cloth of various fabrics and color. When players inserted a coin into the coin slot, the two-faced mannequin spun around slowly as the fortune was printed out. It was an interesting synthesis of art and science, as the artist who made the fortuneteller put an equal amount of effort into designing as they did programming the mechanism.

All in all, the night was a success. It was an innovative way to make science relatable and fun to people of all ages. The Science Arcade Night was an engaging and fun showcase of the versatility and creativity of science.

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