The latest generation of hands-on science centers and technology museums is launching kids into new levels of exploration. Medics-in-training can confront a 3-D hologram of a mondo germ and guide a laser in a virtual surgery so realistic it's definitely not for the squeamish. Athletes can try balancing on a high-wire bicycle; young warriors can get behind the joystick in an F-15 simulator. Science centers like the following—all of which have opened recently or unveiled innovative new exhibitions—are no longer just plastic models and dead bugs under glass.
Orlando Science Center
The largest science center in the Southeast, like its counterparts across the country, tries to make education exciting and thought-provoking. In the Body Zone, kids learn how the body digests food by stepping onto a giant mouth's spongy tongue and following a buttery baked potato through the digestive tract. Later, they can venture inside a 14-foot-high heart and watch blood being pumped through an artery. 777 E. Princeton St., Orlando; 407/514-2000; $9.50 adults, $6.75 kids 3-11.
New York City
American Museum of Natural History
Enter the new Hall of Biodiversity and you'll walk into a re-created central African rain forest, with 160 species of plants and animals. Instead of the usual painted backgrounds, the diorama uses high-resolution photography and video. You'll hear the rain-forest animals and find yourself looking for the gorilla that's beating its chest. Elsewhere within the hall, the 100-foot-long Spectrum of Life displays 1,500 animal specimens and models—3.5 billion years of evolutionary biodiversity in one room. Central Park West at 79th St.; 212/769-5100; from $8 adults, $4.50 kids.
Virginia Air & Space Center
Slip on a pair of foam wings, step inside a wind tunnel, and experience the lift of an airfoil. It's just one of the exhibits at the center, which was established with help from NASA and the aeronautics industry. There's plenty more to do: test the stability of aircraft materials, handle real jet components, and study the "skeleton" of a typical airplane—all at the center's newest display, "Up, Up and Away!" 600 Settlers Landing Rd.; 757/727-0900; from $5.50 adults, $4.50 kids.
Though it just opened this summer, officials are already planning an expansion that will double this science museum's size to 300,000 square feet. Exhibits cover subjects ranging from space technology to physics and geology. Visitors form teams to simulate NASA space-station missions. They can also search for swamp critters in the River Journey, which re-creates a slice of Alabama's Cahaba River. They even learn to use high-tech equipment for old-fashioned purposes, such as creating quilt designs on a computer. 216 19th St. N.; 205/558-2000; $7 adults, $6 kids.
Houston Museum of Natural Science
Ancient cultures from the Arctic to the Andes spring to life in the new John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas. Enter a Mayan stone temple, wander among its burial urns and carvings of kings, and learn how the Mayans developed a complex calendar and mathematical system (you can even find your hieroglyphic name based on your birth date). After exploring the hall's other cultures, you can watch, through a series of video illusions and other special effects, archaeologists at work in their natural habitat—the dig. 1 Hermann Circle Dr.; 713/639-4601; from $3 adults, $2 kids.
California Science Center
You know something's different about this newly opened museum as soon as you enter the Rotunda, in which the lighting changes color with the shifting sun. In the Science Court, a kinetic aluminum sculpture expands its compact 15-foot form into a five-story-tall structure, then collapses. The World of Life does things in a big way with Tess, a talking 50-foot-tall animatronic human who stretches out her 30-foot-long leg to illustrate the dynamics of kicking a soccer ball. Some kids head straight to Creative World, where they can play musical instruments hooked up to computers, or pilot a virtual hovercraft. 700 State Dr., Exposition Park; 213/744-7400; $6.25 adults, $3.75 kids.
Santa Ana, California
Discovery Science Center
You won't have any trouble finding the center when it opens in late October: the avant-garde design firm Arquitectonica topped the building with a 108-foot-tall cube tilted on one corner. Inside there will be eight exhibition areas and 100 "interactivities," the most potentially gruesome of which is the Bed of Nails. Visitors lie down on a slab embedded with 3,399 sharp steel nails, press a button, and feel the nails rise to support their full weight without a puncture. 2500 N. Main St.; 714/542-2823; $8 adults, $6 kids.
San Jose, California
Tech Museum of Innovation
On October 31, the Tech reopens in a building six times larger than its previous space. More than ever, it's a showcase for Silicon Valley's high-tech industries. Among the 300 exhibits is a multimedia computer that lets kids design their own roller coaster; in the Cyclone, a real roller-coaster car, they get to take a simulated ride on the track they "built." The new Hackworth IMAX Dome Theater projects images 82 feet across a hemispherical screen—the only one of its kind in northern California. 201 S. Market St.; 408/279-7150; $8 adults, $6 kids.
A. C. Gilbert's Discovery Village
The centerpiece of Discovery Village (which incorporates five historic buildings) is the 1887 Victorian house built by Andrew T. Gilbert, uncle of A.C., who created American Flyer model trains and the Erector set. In homage, a new science playground is dominated by a 54-foot Erector Set Tower, with three slides and a weather station. Kids can also climb aboard an American Flyer locomotive, crawl into the boiler compartment, and use a periscope (opening soon) to peek at the Burlington Northern trains passing by. 116 Marion St. N.E.; 503/371-3631; $4 for adults and kids.
Pacific Science Center
On October 22 the center officially opens the Orb, a huge spherical building that one day may rival the Space Needle as a Seattle icon. But it's what's inside that counts—a 400-seat IMAX theater with a six-story screen. In December the museum will inaugurate the Tropical Butterfly House, where visitors will walk among 30 species of butterflies and moths, and peek into a birthing room to watch Atlas moths unfurl their 12-inch wings after they emerge from their cocoons. 200 Second Ave. N.; 206/443-2001; $7.50 adults, $5.50 kids.
What's new at international science museums?
National Science & Technology Museum Kaosiung, Taiwan. Opened last fall with 18 exhibition halls.
newMetropolis Amsterdam. Renzo Piano designed this building, where visitors stop by to play and socialize.
Ontario Science Centre Toronto. Just opened: the 180-degree wraparound-screen Omnimax theater.
Maloka Bogotá. At 183,000 square feet, it's the largest interactive science center in South America.
The youth movement
Major science museums are adding age-appropriate play areas for the under-seven set:
COSI Columbus, Ohio; 614/228-2674. The former Center of Science & Industry was one of the first to set aside a section for the very young when it opened KidSpace.
Discovery Science Center Santa Ana, Calif.; 714/542-2823. Dress like an astronaut, try electronic finger painting, and play with space toys at the soon-to-open KidStation.
SciTrek, the Science and Technology Museum of Atlanta 404/522-5500. A wall-size ant farm, riverlike aquarium, and huge explorer's tent complete with forest sounds, at KidSpace.
Louisville Science Center Louisville, Ky.; 502/561-6100. After romping around the new 2,500-square-foot KidZone, your children may never want to play in their own room again.
TROY CORLEY writes about science and technology for FamilyPC, Parents, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.