July 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

New Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum exhibit lets kids get wet and wild

'H2Oh!' is one of three new exhibits at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum. (Ari Morris)

A large-scale water exhibit has been on the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum’s wish list for years.

So when an anonymous donor agreed to fund such a display, museum officials seized the opportunity, bringing “H20h!” to reality in just six months. A German designer created and built a 1,000-square-foot exhibit and installed it this summer, replacing a simpler water play area.

The new exhibit allows open-ended play at stations that demonstrate a variety of water-related scientific concepts. Visitors may attempt to balance a ball on top of a high-pressure stream of water, create and alter a vortex in a large tank, experiment with waterwheels and more.

“They will get very much involved in things that look really simple, but concepts that are really hard,” says Mel Drumm, the museum’s executive director, noting visitors have consistently asked for water-related exhibits since he began his tenure in 2004.

One of the water stations allows visitors to construct a Heron’s fountain, a classic demonstration of hydraulics originally developed in Alexandria in the first century.

“We have probably a 3- or 4-year-old that is working on trying to put it together and likely at this point in her life has no clue what it actually does,” he says. “But what happens is you get a level of being familiar with something. So one day, when she is in that college fluid dynamics class, she might remember this experience.”

Although “H2Oh!” is the museum’s largest new addition, it’s not the only one.

Two other new exhibits, “Nano: Imagine and Discover a World You Can’t See!” and “L Is for Laser,” are also making their debut this summer. The “Nano” exhibit, on loan from the Science Museum of Minnesota, demonstrates the growing power of nanotechnology in our world and the importance of similarly sized phenomena in nature.

“You’re looking at everything at 10 to the negative ninth, so we’re talking one billionth,” Drumm says. “It’s very, very small.”

“L Is for Laser” is a room-sized work of laser art, isolated in an otherwise dark room. The exhibit is open for a only portion of each day, allowing the museum to provide a staff facilitator who encourages visitors to ask questions about how lasers work and interact with the display via an Xbox Kinect device. The exhibit was created by Ann Arbor artist Michael Gould and features a soundtrack by Ann Arbor’s Ken Kozora.

Drumm says “L Is for Laser” represents the museum’s commitment to expanding the traditional “STEM” topics — science, technology, engineering and math — to “STEAM,” incorporating an “A” for art. He notes the museum’s most successful exhibits are those that draw visitors in with a visual, artistic design.

“I’ve watched them, just bright-eyed, stopping,” Drumm says. “This world of ours moves so fast. Stop for a second and say, ‘Wow. Look at that.’ That’s the moment. That’s when it’s really working.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.