Making paper airplanes is fun, but could you create an income stream if you invented a machine that launches them? It may sound crazy, but ScienceWorks in Ashland has found there's a steady market for such quirky devices in science museums around the world.
Kids and adults explode in laughter when they fold an airplane, stick it between the two wheels of the Wing Zinger and watch it shoot through two hoops. Adjusting the angle of attack determines whether the aircraft stalls, flies straight or plops onto the floor.
ScienceWorks Education Coordinator Shannon Troy says the device, created and machined by local inventors, illustrates several scientific principles, including the velocity and lift needed to keep something aloft. It also illustrates that force has to be applied to create motion and when that force peters out, it stops.
"There's a lot of screaming, laughing and jumping going on when they use this machine," says Troy. "When you learn something hands-on, you talk about it more and remember it longer."
The Wing Zinger was invented by Jim Hand, Dick Alexander and ScienceWorks co-founder John Javna and others and assembled in the museum's work area. Copies are made and leased or sold to museums around the world, usually as part of exhibits with a common theme.
The "Taking Flight" group, which includes the Wing Zinger, explores aviation and rents for $7,000 a month, says Javna. "Sports-ology," teaching the physics of athletic activities, leases for $10,000 a month. "Noise," an exhibit of machines illustrating sound, rents for $6,000 a month.
They lease with a three-month minimum, are much cheaper than exhibits made by big museums and bring in $75,000 to $100,000 a year in earned income for ScienceWorks, says Executive Director Mark DiRienzo.
Since the ill economy brought staff layoffs, ScienceWorks has turned more to volunteers for design and manufacture of the devices. Luckily, the region is rich in skilled and educated people "who have the ability to imagine and have retained that inner child and sense of wonder we all had as kids," says DiRienzo. "It would be hard for us to do it without them."
The museum has sold four of the flight exhibits this year and is working on a new exhibit, "The Secret Science of Toys," which includes popular Rube Goldberg devices. The market encompasses 400 science museums in the U.S. and many abroad.
"We have the point of view of a small museum, since we are one, so we know what they can afford," says Javna.
Education Director Skoshi Wise notes that when museums lease or buy from ScienceWorks, "it brings in fresh, new exhibits, which is always a challenge for science centers, plus we provide educational materials that support the exhibits and can be delivered as modules for schools or field trips and that allow kids to act as scientists and reason things out."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.