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Carnegie Science Center is letting visitors build with 'Blue!' exhibit

| Thursday, July 3, 2014, 9:11 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Charlotte Lodge, 4, of Fox Chapel, plays in the Carnegie Science Center's BLUE! exhibit on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The hands-on exhibit features blue foam blocks and encourages visitors to use engineering skills.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Robert Fillar, 7, of Plum, builds in the Carnegie Science Center's BLUE! exhibit on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The hands-on exhibit features blue foam blocks and encourages visitors to use engineering skills.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Haleema James, 10, of Bethel Park, builds in the Carnegie Science Center's BLUE! exhibit on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The hands-on exhibit features blue foam blocks and encourages visitors to use engineering skills.

An imaginative Charlotte Lodge proudly shows off the giant “ship castle” the 4-year-old has constructed out of blue foam pieces, with help from fellow kids at the Carnegie Science Center.

“I'm a princess,” says the Fox Chapel girl, playing in the North Side center's new “Blue!” exhibit. “All the girls are princesses, and the boys are pirates.”

Charlotte spent several days in the exhibit building the structure with tall walls, a bed and a bunch of noodles inside.

“I love what they have here,” says Charlotte's nanny, Eileen Marchione, 58, of Blawnox. “It's so creative.”

Blue-colored foam blocks of all shapes and sizes fill the new “Blue!” exhibit, occupying the space where “Bikes: Science on Two Wheels” stood. The immersive, hands-on exhibit aims to bring out the inner designer and engineer in kids and adults. The blocks resemble yoga blocks, only they come in an array of sizes and geometric shapes like squares, circles, hexagons and trapezoids. Why the color blue exclusively?

“By only using one color, it makes you focus on the shape and the design rather than the color,” says Dennis Bateman, director of exhibit experience at the center. “This way, kids won't fight over who gets the yellow, green or red blocks.

“To a 5-year-old, this might look ... like a football field full of giant blocks,” Bateman says.

Visitors build everything from little robots to big structures, including buildings with foam bricks, spiderlike structures with foam noodles, and little robots. In one area of “Blue!”, people build an arch using slightly curved blocks. They work from the bottom up, stacking the blocks until they reach the top. There, a crowning keystone piece holds the arch together just by physics, with no adhesion.

In another component of the exhibit, a sensitive screen that covers a wall senses people and outlines them graphically — then, images of blue bricks fill the outline. When they step away from the screen, the electronic bricks collapse.

Bateman says that center officials initially thought of “Blue!” — designed by David Rockwell, a New York City architect — as an opportunity to build structures, but after seeing people's creativity, the exhibit's focus has become open-ended. The exhibit also has a social element, since strangers meet each other while working on the same building projects.

Adam Perl, 31, of White Oak, sits at a table with itty-bitty foam pieces, building a leggy structure using the foam and strawlike, transparent sticks. Meanwhile, Perl's “little brother” — Xavier, 12, matched with him through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh — puts the finishing touches on a little humanoid robot, complete with movable legs and arms.

“I just started building something,” Perl says.

“He's doing a much better job,” he says, pointing at Xavier.

The center is offering several blue-themed weekends to complement “Blue!” with the Big Blue Summer promotion, although the themes may be a clever wordplay and not have much to do with the color blue.

Blue Moon Weekend, July 19 and 20, celebrates the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Visitors will learn about modern space travel and how it differs from what we see in the movies, and learn about plans for robots to go to the moon, says Brad Peroney, program development coordinator. On Blueprints Weekend, Aug. 9 and 10, visitors will explore architecture and engineering while building bridges, towers and more. They will watch kinetic art demolish itself, Peroney says.

“It's great; it's a lot of fun,” he says about Big Blue Summer weekends. “But if that's not necessarily your thing, we've got other things for you to do this summer.”

The Carnegie Science Center is playing up the blue theme even more with live musical performances by blues and bluegrass artists, held Saturdays, July 5 to Aug. 30. Musicians will perform at 1 p.m. in the “Blue!” gallery, and concerts are free with admission. Shari Richards, a Pittsburgh blues artist, will kick off the series July 5. The other performers are: Jimmy Adler Band, July 12; Wil E. Tri on harmonica and Ernie Hawkins on guitar, July 19; Border Ride, July 26; The Allegheny Drifters, Aug. 2; Marc Reisman on Aug. 9; Joe Grushecky plus a harmonica guest, Aug. 16; Jill West and Gregg Krupa of the Blues Attack and Miss Freddye, Aug. 30.

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com or 412-320-7824.

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