If you go by the intensity of screams and giggles, and the sheer number of times every visitor is clamouring for a repeat attempt, it is definitely the ‘Angry Hair’ machine demonstrating the simple principle of electrostatics that is the biggest draw at the interactive science exhibition called ‘Wafi’s Science Factory’ currently on at Wafi in Dubai until mid-April.

There’s a group of eager, curious and enthusiastic children and adults waiting to place their hands on the large metal orb mounted above a pedestal. At the press of the start button, strand by strand, their hair begins to stretch upward and outward much to the excitement of the curious onlookers. It is when the hair is all on end, far apart from each other, and they begin to resemble the proverbial mad scientist or the cartoon character who has just been electrocuted, that the squeals of delight reach a dizzying crescendo.

‘Angry Hair’ is just one of the 40 hands-on stations at ‘Wafi’s Science Factory’ that are drawing young and adults alike to explore basic science concepts through practical examples, all creatively designed to stimulate an interest in the world around us.

So, what exactly makes the hair stand on end? As the assistant at the ‘Angry Hair’ station explains, ‘The Van de Graaff generator is based on the fact that like charges repel, and it works by pulling electrons from the Earth, moving them along a belt and storing them on the large sphere. These electrons repel each other and try to get as far away from each other as possible, spreading out on the surface of the sphere. So, when you touch the electrified object with static high voltage, you will slowly become positively charged, including each of your hairs. Since hair is very light, and like charges repel, the hair begins to get as far away from each other as possible, causing them to stand up.’

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Since the person is standing on an insulated platform, the electrons will not be able to travel down to the ground and their hair will remain standing up, he adds.

Seven-year-old Jonathan has been up on the pedestal at least three times; yet he wants to try it ‘again and again,’ he says. ‘It is magical, and I like the tingly feeling that happens when I hold the ball.’ His younger brother though, didn’t seem to share the same enthusiasm. Perhaps it was precisely this weird tingly feeling that caused him to tear up and jump into his mother’s arms just a few moments earlier.

Lena, a mother-of-three from Lebanon, who is visiting the Science Factory with two friends and their kids, says, ‘Just the idea of being able to engage the children in something so fruitful is what lured us here to Wafi. Our children are perhaps not grown up enough to understand the concepts behind each experiment, but I am certain it will ignite their interest in the subject and see for themselves that science is all around us in things we do and see every day.’

‘The hands-on experimentation approach is fun and informative, and it will fuel their scientific curiosity. An added incentive is that it is a free event!’

Spread across the ground floor and first level of Wafi, each of the six stations features four or more fun-filled interactive machines that provide an educational take on science.

Cross the Border Line is a good test to know how steady your hands are
Antonin Kelian Kallouche

What happens when a volcano erupts? How do lightning and thunder happen? How fast can you react to light and sound? Why do you see a scene as three-dimensional? If these are questions you wonder about often, then ‘Wafi’s Science Factory’ is where you must head to. Produced in collaboration with World Touring Exhibitions and a team of scientists, physicists, geologists and astronomers, some of the highlights at the exhibition include an earthquake machine that allows you to experience levels 4, 5 and 6 of the Richter scale without getting hurt; a laser-sensored drumkit that works on the phenomenon of the photoelectric effect, the discovery of which led Albert Einstein to win the 1921 Nobel Prize; and a 3D illusion technique using a swinging pendulum bob to explain the Pulfrich theory, among several other mind-boggling machines and experiments.

[Computer science or engineering  which is the better option?]

Whether the modules involve principles of physics, chemical reactions or lessons in biology, they are designed to be educative, informative and fun so that children learn new concepts often without realising it.

It is the chance to turn invisible that has 12-year-old Rohan all excited. ‘It looks cool in photographs and I have taken a few to show my friends,’ says the beaming Grade 7 student.

‘The machine works on the principles of reflection of mirrors and lights. The way the plane mirrors are placed at specific angles produces the illusion of invisibility. This is one experiment I would like to try out at home,’ he says.

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Marwa Ahmed has brought her children — ranging in ages from 2 to 9 — to the event because ‘these are concepts and scientific phenomena that my elder daughter is learning in school right now. For instance, she has learnt about volcanoes and tornadoes this semester. So, to come here and see a machine that stimulates the formation of tornadoes and shows how the rising airflow produces a rotating vortex or see how a volcano erupts with gases shooting up through the opening and spewing lava downward — these are lessons that will stay with her forever.’

‘My younger kids are just happy to see some action — that things move or shoot up when you touch or press something,’ she says. ‘I hope this visit sparks their curiosity and they will begin to look at everyday objects in a new way.’

For 11-year-old Sarah, a homeschooling student in Sharjah, it was the Bottomless Chasm that was the most fascinating. ‘Standing atop the glass surface and looking below, it is similar to the feeling of viewing down from the top of a skyscraper — the optical illusion created by just two mirrors taking advantage of the reflection of light is amazing. The never-ending view makes it very mysterious and shows just how creative you can get with simple physics.’

She also found the Memory Test very intriguing. ‘It tests how much information you can store in your mind for a brief period of time. We think we have a powerful memory, but today I learnt that the average duration of short-term memory is only around 18 seconds!’

Kids are fascinated by bolts of dazzling colour every time they touch these glass orbs
Antonin Kelian Kallouche

It is to the cries of ‘Look here, every body, look here’ that a small group of 6- to 12-year-olds scattered around different machines turn their attention to the Flying Ball, where their friend has successfully managed to get a ball float in the air right above a cylindrical device. ‘This machine works on Bernoulli’s principle which states that as air moves around an object, it creates different pressures on that object,’ explains the guide manning the station. ‘Since the airflow pressure intensity is quite low while the surrounding still has a high air pressure, it moves the ball up.’

Adjacent to it is a simple basketball challenge. With the net placed just beyond arm’s length, it may seem easy enough for even a tiny tot to score. But no! This is the Science Factory and the game is designed to challenge even a gifted player for it has to be played by holding a ‘funny glass’ before your eyes. The lens of this glass has a refractive index which causes you to see the basketball rim in a different position, making it almost impossible to net the ball!

At Wafi’s Science Factory, it is not just the kids but even the adults who are having a go at the various hands-on activities to up their scientific temper or kindle their interest in the subject. Many of them are eager to test how long the coordination of their eyes, hands, body movement and focus lasts at ‘Cross the Border Line’, which calls for passing a metal rod through the complicated wavy lines without touching it. This is no easy task for even the small errors in hand-body-eye coordination triggers the alarm.

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According to Salem Hassan, a marketing professional in the F&B industry, ‘It was the large advertisement outside the mall that caught our attention and brought us here. I thought it was something my sons would enjoy but I am having just as much fun. There is no age bar, I guess, when it comes to discovering and learning how things work. Science is a lifelong voyage of discovery.’

With four kids in tow, Zanobia Salim and her husband are at Wafi on the recommendation of a friend who had been here just a few days earlier. ‘We came in on a weekday to avoid the rush at the weekend,’ she says, as the kids are absorbed in watching how a group of spherical plasma glass orbs glow in dazzling colours with what looks like bolts of electricity with the mere touch of their hands.

They then move on to the ‘Face Exchange’ station where the entire family take turns to sit on opposite sides of a mirror and watch as one’s face overlaps with the other at the flick of an LED light, demonstrating the phenomenon of light reflection and transmission, and the composition of transmission effect. They find plenty to laugh about as they point out the ‘new’ features on their face, and how silly it looks on them.

‘Children are naturally curious and events like these kindle the imagination, and keeps the creative spark alive,’ says Zanobia. ‘Playing with science will help them retain the knowledge they have gained. I believe this combination of knowledge and fun is what takes the fear out of science, and as a parent, I would be happy to see more of such educational activities in Dubai again.’

Know before you go

• Wafi’s Science Factory is open until mid-April

• Timing: 10am to 10pm

• Free entry

• Easy-to-understand explanations detailing the scientific principles behind each experiment is provided

• Guides are present at each station to ensure safety while using the machines and to explain scientific concepts

• A certificate will be awarded to those who visit all the 40 machines

• Look out for resident mad scientist Albert, who makes an appearance only on weekends