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Hands-on learning at Bemidji's Headwaters Science Center

"Can I try that?" Her excitement could hardly be contained. In fact, it couldn't, as she squealed again. The first grader had never seen a boy hold a spinning bike tire like that, and it made him twirl around in a circle. She was amazed by his trick and couldn't wait for her turn.

Of course, it's not a trick. It's science. More specifically, it's the angular momentum of the spinning tire that exerts a force, which causes you to spin in the opposite direction. But a giddy squeal sums it up just as well.

The Headwaters Science Center in downtown Bemidji puts you right in the middle of this and many other science experiments. The hands-on nature of the exhibits encourages kids to discover and adults to play.

Watch how the hot-air balloon rises when you heat the air inside, listen to a whisper from the other side of the room, light a fluorescent light-bulb with the touch of a finger or freeze your shadow on a reflectorized wall.

"I just want to try again" says a little boy on the other side of the room. "He's not slimy, and I could wear this all day!" His mind shifts gears quickly as he asks about the snake's tongue. "Why is its tongue black? And why is it split?"

The enjoyment of the Science Center isn't limited to the experiments. There are many different animals on display and several are available for hands-on demonstrations. You can wear a boa constrictor as a necklace, cuddle with a chinchilla or follow a sulcata tortoise as he inches across the room.

The Headwaters Science Center has been captivating children since it opened its doors at 413 Beltrami Ave. N.W., in 1993. Before then, school groups had to travel to St. Paul if they wanted to experience science in a hands-on environment. It wasn't until a group of community volunteers, most of whom grew up in places that had museums, got together and helped make the Center a reality.

Jim and Laddie Elwell were a part of the early driving force of building a science center, and they are deeply involved to this day. Laddie is happy with how far they have come, but she keeps an eye on the future. "We don't have enough space to do our job well," she said. "We need more exhibits and we need more space, there are times when we have a couple hundred kids in here and that's a lot of kids for this building."

The Science Center works with area schools to ensure that its exhibits and programs follow along with classroom teaching requirements. To coincide with these visits, the center also puts on classroom demonstrations.

"Yeah," shout the children as the instructor asks them if they like science. She easily holds their attention as she pulls out a vat of liquid nitrogen. As the smoke billows out of the jar, she spends the next half hour demonstrating how matter reacts to differing temperatures. "Contract," the kids yell as liquid nitrogen is poured on a balloon. They are all in unison, once again, when the air in the balloon begins to re-heat: "Expand!"

These demonstrations are the perfect classroom supplement, but it's important to remember that the center is not just a structured learning environment. They have lectures and labs aimed at adults, kids and families, field trips, outreach programs where they come to your location and present, and they even host birthday parties.

The center is also a member of the Association of Science and Technology Centers. This allows members of the Headwaters Science Center free entry into over 300 science centers across the country, including the Science Museum of Minnesota.

"What was your favorite part of the Science Center?" a kindergartner was asked.

"All of it," she said with a smile.

"But which part was your favorite?"

"All of it!"