Pop science draws crowd to science center

Scientists have finally discovered a remedy for the annoyances of Pittsburgh traffic. Soothing LCD displays, preprogrammed fragrances, and vibrations in the driver’s seat are only a few of the ways in which Bayer MaterialScience and Rinspeed’s new concept car is designed to respond to the mood of its user.

The product, called the Senso Car, is set up to monitor the conduct and pulse of its driver. Reacting to emotions including anger and fatigue, the Senso Car in turn alters its environment, even playing music designed to promote tranquility and awareness. All those “No Turn On Red” signs don’t stand a chance.

The Senso Car is only one of the many attractions featured in this year’s SciTech Spectacular, a 10-day celebration of technology and invention located at the Carnegie Science Center.
Formerly the SciTech Festival, the seven-year-old event opened this past Friday and will last through Sunday. This is the Spectacular’s second year under its new name, which came with a lot of other changes.

Until 2005, the science center held its SciTech Festival in the spring to correspond with the Pittsburgh Regional Science & Engineering Fair, a 68-year-old contest for middle and high school students. The science fair remains in March, but that doesn’t mean it’s lost touch with the Spectacular.

Throughout its 10-day span, the SciTech Spectacular is offering workshops for students interested in participating in the 2007 competitive season. Cutting the year approximately into halves, the Spectacular and the Science Fair are now able to promote each other.

Hosting the SciTech Spectacular in the fall is more conducive to outside exploration, explained Daniel Casciato, the public programs and marketing manager for the Spectacular. “We expanded our presence to outdoors as well,” he said.

But the SciTech Spectacular isn’t just for kids. Now more than ever, it’s a great opportunity for college students to enjoy themselves and further their careers.

This year the Spectacular is featuring its first-ever job and internship fair, called @pgh.café, backed by Apple and Catalyst Connection. Over 30 companies are set to gather in the science center on Friday from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m.

If employment opportunities come in handy, so do unconventional uses of everyday objects, or at least the creative thinkers behind would like to think so. Known as the Diet Coke and Mentos guys (or “Diet Pop,” in Pittsburgh), members of Boston performance group Atypical Entertainment visited the Science Center last Friday and Saturday.

The Diet Coke and Mentos guys are able to shoot breath mints up to 25 feet into the air, all through the clever use of calorie-free soda. After demonstrating the effect, the Atypical entertainers encourage audience participation, and then the official show begins.

“They’ve actually choreographed it to music,” said Casciato. The Diet Coke and Mentos guys wrap up their show with a Q&A session.

It’s no surprise Carnegie Mellon has contributed to the exhibits at this year’s SciTech Spectacular. For example, the Entertainment Technology Center’s JAM-O-DRUM game is currently set up for visitor interaction. Players can use their hands to hit the JAM-O-DRUM’s round surface and trigger vibrant projections of light corresponding to the beat.

The Carnivore, a solar-powered boat built by undergraduates, is another of the Spectacular’s exhibits made possible by Carnegie Mellon. Part of an intercollegiate competition called Solar Splash, the Carnegie Mellon team is mostly made up of engineers, though a few of its members are majoring in design, business, and even drama.

Some of the exhibits at the science center aim to expose visitors to advancements in familiar technology. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first hard drive, which is becoming an increasingly important part of modern technology.

“Hard drives are basically showing up everywhere,” said Tim Rausch, a Carnegie Mellon alum representing Seagate. In addition to computers, hard drives are now standard components of video game systems and MP3 players alike.

With a variety of activities both educational and entertaining, this year’s SciTech Spectacular will provide a wealth of opportunities to the community of Pittsburgh.

Five thousand middle and high school students are already registered for this week’s events, and Casciato expects another 10,000 to attend.

The Carnegie Science Center is worth a visit, even if it is more accessible by bus than it is by Senso Car.