"It’s the ultimate way to teach your children about science," says Nathalie, a mother of three young girls, aged 11, 6, and 3, as she watches her older ones compete to see who can generate more electricity and light more bulbs just by pedalling a stationary bike. Several enthusiastic kids stand in queue, watching observantly and patiently awaiting their turn to discover for themselves how energy moves and changes form.
Here at Wafi City in Dubai, the air is abuzz with the excitement and laughter of children, as they explore and discover through a series of fun, active and hands-on experiences, a range of fundamental concepts in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). At Wonderlab – an eight-week festival that concludes on October 31, children are learning by exploring how things are built, how they work, and what makes them work.
Spread across six zones on the ground and upper levels of Wafi City, each zone is designed to encourage children to look, listen, touch, try, question, observe, and discover more about the world they live in. From exploring space and planets and watching lightning strike or witnessing first-hand how a high-speed whirlwind turns into a tornado to discovering how light transforms a still image into a delightful moving animation, there is plenty here to unearth and learn for children and adults alike.
"Wonderlab has brought the fun back into learning and is sparking awareness and igniting curiosity in young minds," continues Nathalie. "This is our second weekend here, and my children seem to have absorbed STEM concepts they are learning in school as these hands-on exhibits encourage them to think more like a scientist."
Echoing a similar thought is Shazia, who found the displays demonstrating the eruption of a volcano and the formation of a tornado particularly useful for her eight-year-old daughter, Mariam, who is currently learning aspects of weather science in school. "I believe that children learn best when they are involved in the process, and this is precisely what Wonderlab does. Mariam, for instance, had several questions about the funnel cloud that is the defining characteristic of a tornado and was equally excited to see the gases spout out of the volcano, and to learn more about what happens when a volcano erupts."
Mariam added that while several exhibits touched upon what was being taught in school, the ‘Angry Hair’ machine, which demonstrates the simple principle of electrostatics and makes one’s hair stand on end, is a "must-try experience".
"I had the most fun competing with my father on the short-term memory test and racing against time to hit the lights on the Batak Wall which is designed to improve one’s reaction time, stamina, and hand-eye coordination," she added.
The exhibits, which demonstrate principles of physics, mechanics and engineering or lessons of the human body and outer space, were developed in cooperation with scientists, technology experts, and gaming enthusiasts, explains a lab assistant at one of the six zones. "These are both interactive and educational and aim to challenge individuals by testing their skills and thereby fostering a life-long interest in the science of technology."
Adults have been equally taken in by the hands-on experiments showcased at Wonderlab. Jose Nathaniela and Albert Tubo, both in their late 40s, take turns on the Balance Board to assess their balance ability and fail miserably – unable to steady themselves for no more than a few seconds. "Staying upright when standing is something we have always taken for granted," says Nathaniela, "and it is quite a revelation to know that balance is controlled through signals to the brain from the eyes, the inner ear, and the sensory systems of the body such as the skin, muscles and joints."
Meanwhile Rajat Naik discovers how difficult it is to pull apart a pair of two large copper hemispheres, better known as Magdeburg Hemispheres. The experiment demonstrates the power of atmospheric pressure and was named after the German scientist who invented the first air pump and used it to study the phenomenon of vacuum and what happens when the air is removed from the interior of the hemispheres. As Naik quickly realises, when the air inside is sucked out, there is no longer any force pushing outward. The atmospheric pressure outside dominates and pushes the hemispheres together, keeping them from being separated.
For Ismail and his wife, Ayesha, who were still reeling under the dizzying effects of the Bottomless Chasm which mimicked the feeling of looking down from atop a skyscraper, the presence of hand sanitisers and disinfecting wipes at every exhibit station has been quite reassuring. "To know that all hygiene and safety protocols are being followed while children engage in various activities is a comforting thought. It takes the worry away from letting our kids explore and enjoy the interactive exhibits."
"The participatory approach of Wonderlab ensures that every encounter leads to some learning and improves our understanding of science," added Ismail. "Abstract, complex concepts have been made into a concrete touch and feel experience, and you cannot but be inspired to discover more. Wonderlab opens our eyes to the fact that these concepts are all around us and that we interact with it every day – we just have to be more observant and curious."
With three children, ranging in ages from 4 to 12, what has also appealed to Ayesha is that there are activities to suit every age group. "While my older sons raced against each other on the Lab Run to determine the maximum rate of oxygen being used by the body during an activity, the younger one was impressed to see a fountain spring into action with just the sound of his voice."
"We came here on the suggestion of a friend, assuming our children could have a fun learning experience, but my husband and I have been equally spellbound!" added the marketing professional.
Other activities to look out for at the Wafi City’s Wonderlab includes the chance to experience gravity with the ‘Moon Jump’, learn how sound is created and play with musical pipes, or an opportunity to test your knowledge of the Periodic Table. Look out for the Newton’s cradle, named after the 17th century English scientist, and which demonstrates the conservation of momentum and energy with swinging spheres; and learn how to create beautiful music on a ‘stringless’ harp that is made of light sensors, or discover the joys of playing the drum without drumheads.
Wonderlab encourages both students and adults to be curious, question, and look closely at details, but above all, its lasting impact is that of building a love of science that can last a lifetime.
Wonderlab Dubai: Know before you go
• Wonderlab runs at Wafi City until October 31
• Opening hours: Saturday – Thursday from 12 noon – 10pm and Friday from 2pm – 11pm
• Free entry
• Hands-on and interactive experiments at six zones spread across ground and first floor
• Lab assistants at each zone facilitate engagement and explain scientific concepts
• Scan QR codes at every exhibit to earn points and win an all-expenses paid trip for four to the Wonderlab at the Science Museum in London, UK
• Competitions galore! Every Friday, children stand a chance to win exciting prizes at live competition sessions held from 4pm onwards