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Full STEM Ahead
KWEC offers educational activities
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Boys play in the “reality sandbox,” a 3-D watershed simulator. By molding the sand by hand, the landscape comes to life with an elevation color map, topographic contour lines and simulated water. - photo by Susan Thacker

Families headed to the Kansas Wetlands Education Center on Friday afternoon to check out the new interactive exhibits and enjoy some STEM-themed activities and experiments.

“STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math,” said KWEC Director Curtis Wolf, who was helping children make small portable greenhouses. Beads that contained water were placed with corn seeds and then the packet was strung on a piece of yarn to make the whole thing wearable. The combination of body heat and moisture will cause the seeds to sprout soon, Wolf said.

Program Specialist Mandy Kern found STEM activities and volunteers to oversee them throughout the Education Center. Her 11-year-old son Jonas Kern, along with his friend Phillip Penner, had a table where children could make tiny snowmen and then watch them foam and melt before their eyes.

As they boys rolled balls of white dough, representing snowballs, Kern explained the science behind the game.

“It’s made of soap, baking soda, water and salt,” he said. “When you squirt vinegar on the ‘snow’ it melts because the baking soda mixes with the vinegar.”

Those who want to try this at home can make the dough by mixing two cups of baking soda, two tablespoons of salt, one teaspoon of liquid dish soap and eight tablespoons of water. Add more water, by tablespoon, if needed. Roll the dough into balls to form a snowman. Decorate if desired. Then, place it in a pan and add to vinegar to make it foam and “melt.”

Other activities included making paper circuit cards and engineering a way to stack as many mints as possible, using only a pipe cleaner and a sheet of construction paper.

The KWEC recently unveiled nine new interactive exhibits, so the stream of visitors has been steady over the holidays, Mandy Kern said. The center overlooks Cheyenne Bottoms, the largest inland marsh in the United States. Exhibits tell the story of the wetlands from its ancient geological formation to the management challenges of the future. The plants and animals of the wetlands are featured.

There is still time to visit before children go back to school on Thursday. The Education Center will be open from 1-5 p.m. Sunday but is closed on Mondays and will also be closed Tuesday for New Year’s Day.

Regular hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is always free.

KWEC is managed by Fort Hays State University in cooperation with the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks & Tourism and is located at 592 NE K-156 in Barton County.