By MICHELLE SCHMIDT
The McCaw collection displays 150 rocks that look utterly ordinary in every way … until ultraviolet light shines on them. Suddenly they dazzle with vibrant oranges and greens and glowing blues and pinks that look more like Disneyland than a walk in the mountains. The Jacklin and Culver collections may not glow, but the petrified wood, geodes, minerals and fossils are likely to inspire adventures of the imagination.
The rock museum — and the lobby preceding it — is filled with plenty of educational entertainment. Most visits are self-guided, but the School of the Environment will host group tours on occasion. If you plan to bring your rock-loving offspring to the museum, here are a few tips for interaction:
Hunt for fossils
Fossils are always cool. They’re perceived as rare and valuable by most kids, a sort of geologic treasure chest, and the museum and lobby have no shortage of them. Some are casts — replicas of an original — but if you look around you’ll find a leg bone that used to be walking around in the form of a triceratops. Smaller fossils include trilobites and cephalopods.
Play with buttons
The fluorescent rock display is located directly to the left upon entering the museum; there are two curtained entrances that darken the viewing area so you can see the fluorescent effect. Inside there are three viewing windows, two that display each type of UV light and one that is a combination of the two. The buttons inside and outside the display turn on various lights and start or slow the rotation of the display. Kids (and adults, if we’re being honest) get a kick out of comparing what the rocks look like in each type of light.
So why do the rocks glow?
“Some light such as ultraviolet light cannot be seen by people. Another word for this is black light. When black light is shined on some posters the poster seems to glow in all these different colors. When this light shines on some minerals the mineral will absorb some of it and then re-admit the light energy at a lower energy level that we can see. This is why fluorescent minerals glow in such different colors,” explains Kurt Wilkie, geologist and instructor at WSU.
Use your imagination
The rock museum displays a wide variety of petrified wood bookends. Sure, it’s fascinating that wood, buried in sediment, turns to rock as silica and other minerals slowly replace the cells. But some kids might only be so enthralled with the geologic process. If that’s the case, do what the Jacklin children did and look for shapes and figures in the matched bookends. With a little imagination, you’ll see images of butterflies, owls, kissing sheep and who knows what else.
Read the signs
Forgot the difference between short UV waves and long UV waves? Your kids don’t need to know you lost that piece of information along the way. All of the interactive activities and most objects in the display cases have corresponding explanatory signs. A simple “let’s read it together” should buy both the time and information needed so you can appear smarter than you actually are.
Bring a friend
Studies show that rocks are 87 percent more interesting when viewed with a friend. (And by “studies,” we mean “observable realities.”) Provided the friend you bring along to the museum isn’t going to break display cases, start fires or instigate other general mayhem, chances are your kids will be more likely to engage with the subject.
All of the rocks are behind glass. But most of the physics displays in the building lobby aren’t. That means your hands-on kids will have something more to do than just hold still and look. The Infinite Mirror, Chaotic Pendulum, Magnetic Materials, Eddy Current Forces, Jacob’s Ladder and Corner Mirror are all good for some fun, and probably some learning, too.
If you go:
What: Physics & Earth Science Displays and Rock Collections
When: Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., building lobby open until 10 p.m.
Where: Webster Physical Science Building, Room 124 at Washington State University, Pullman
Schmidt can be contacted at email@example.com or at (208) 305-4578.