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Fun and games - and good science

`I THINK I can do this!'' says Elizabeth, who's trying to fit a marble through a funnel. Too small. ``No, wait,'' and she dashes off. She's one of the young science lovers at the Museum of Science who have spent the last hour hurtling around the room gathering up balloons, rubber stoppers, wooden cones, vacuum cleaner hose, vent hosing, checkers, rulers, pieces of Lego, marbles, tacks, and straws. When they finished putting them all together, this is what happened: A California Raisin wind-up toy walked into a cup of coffee, knocking the coffee into a funnel, which sent it coursing over a sugar cube to which a balloon was tied. The coffee melted the sugar, which freed the balloon, which pulled a seesaw up, which released a ball.

That was just one small part of a sprawling kinetic sculpture that in the end released a bunch of balloons, turned on Christmas lights, and cranked up a John Philip Sousa march. While it might have looked like a clever version of a Rube Goldberg machine, it actually illustrated quite a few principles of physics and chemistry. And the builders were fourth- to ninth-graders.

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Putting together the machine was the capper to ``Science-by-Mail Days,'' a celebration of the museum's science program for students. The students got to listen to a scientist from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration tell them they're the scientists of tomorrow; go on a scavenger hunt that sent them all through the museum looking for clues (not objects) that would help them build their sculpture; and meet the scientists they'd been corresponding with for months.

The Science-by-Mail program, which began in February, brought together 2,000 student scientists and their 100 professional counterparts by mail. The museum sent the students three problem packets, each a month apart. The junior scientists mailed solutions and questions to their adult scientists via the museum. The first problem was how to dispose of trash on a spaceship. The second presented a series of circus-related problems, like how to put a pin through a balloon and not pop it (push it through the top or bottom where the surface tension is less). No. 3 was a Sherlock Holmes mystery that involved forensic skills.

Marlene Leach, a ninth-grade Jodie Foster look-alike in a denim jacket, told how she worked on that one. She decided to let a family member ``steal'' her jacket. She'd try to find the clues that would tell who took it. She found her jacket, muddy. By scientific observation she deduced the culprit was her stepsister. How? ``I found mud on her shoes.''

Her scientist, Mike Teeley, who works for the Kendall Company, makers of health care products, mild-mannered and professorial, said, ``The kids were very creative. Often in these kinds of things you'll find that the parents have coached them, but these kids did their own work.''

A display of some of the finished projects showed that a lot of thought had gone into the problems of life on a spacecraft. ``Wrap food in pita bread instead of plastic wrap. Mark brand names on with food coloring,'' wrote Jamie Trie. There's also a complex diagram of a rocket ship with shredder, organic sorter, refuse power system, and a trap for recycled sludge.

The museum has a larger purpose than just showing kids that science is fun. ``I want them to come to any problem, whether it be history, social studies, math, anything, and know how to solve it,'' says Stephen Brand, head of the museum's public outreach. ``What's the first thing you do? You ask the question, set up an experiment, do your observation, collect data, analyze the data, and draw a conclusion. If you have to solve a problem, you can use science as a vehicle.''

The idea for the Science-by-Mail project came to Isabel Miller, director of educational outreach at the museum, a year ago at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. With several thousand parents, she waited for their children to come out of the institute's Math-by-Mail contest.

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``I saw the germ of an idea for the museum,'' she says. Mrs. Miller adapted the concept, giving it some American twists like the ``new games'' philosophy of noncompetition. The museum sent posters and brochures to every school in Massachusetts and to the Girl Scouts. Most students came from New England; a few sent in applications from as far away as France. ``A woman in Homer, Alaska, found out about the program by talking to another woman in the supermarket,'' says Mr. Brand. Students could sign up as individuals, or in school or family groups. One group included four mentally retarded adults.

The museum advertised for scientists over computer networks and through scientific associations. As a result of Brand's talking up the program at the last meeting of the Association of Science and Technology Centers, 20 other museums from as far away as Northern Ireland and Vienna are planning similar ventures. Museums in California and New Jersey, which don't even have buildings yet, are considering starting the program, ``so that they'll have a base of students when they do open up,'' says Brand. He's hunting around for more minority scientists. ``I want the students to think of scientists as real people. Especially girls and minorities.''

Miller says one of the gratifying things for her has been the support of the families. ``One father brought his kid's project in a truck. Stephen said we should call it `Science-by-Truck.' And a mother wrote to say that while her daughter had lost interest in the problem and probably wouldn't finish, to please keep sending the problems because they provoked such interesting discussions at the table.''