We Tried It: The Machine Inside: Biomechanics

Our 5 tips to learning and playing with animal powers at the Bishop Museum's New Exhibit

Photo: Jennifer Carlile Dalgamouni

What: The Machine Inside: Biomechanics exhibit which opened last weekend

Where: Bishop Museum

Who: Mom, Dad, 6-year-old and 4-year-old boys.

When: Friday evening during the museum’s member’s preview night

My 6-year-old is always asking questions about how things work and my 4-year-old is obsessed with dinosaurs. So, when we heard that the Bishop Museum was bringing in an exhibit that not only investigates how animals and plants are engineered to run, fly, chomp and more, but also includes a replica of the world’s largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus-rex skeleton, we had to go.

The Machine Inside: Biomechanics covers a huge variety of animals and plants and even explains how humans used nature to inspire inventions including Velcro, chainsaws and a cane for the blind that uses echolocation. There are a lot of facts that I found fascinating. But young kids will need parents to actively guide them through the sometimes complex information, or they will quickly lose interest.

As soon as you enter the exhibit you come face-to-face with “Sue,” the life-size replica of the largest T. rex skeleton ever found.

“T. rex, T. rex!” my 4-year-old shouted. He ran toward the skeleton, staring up in wonder, then raced to the replica of her skull and a screen showing how scientists reconstructed how she walked and ran. At a max-speed of 18 miles per hour, she was slower than I would’ve thought. But, if she caught you, we learned she would bite with a force of 12,500 pounds. The boys touched a replica of the dinosaur’s tooth and saw how its “lethal banana shape” ripped through flesh without breaking.

The rest of the exhibit is broken down into six color-coded sections set clockwise around Sue: Structures and Materials, Pumps and Pipes, Jaws and Claws, Legs and Springs, Wings and Fins, and Eyes Ears and Beyond. Every area has information that will be interesting for parents and older kids and interactive activities for kids of all ages. Here is what we found:

The purple section, “Staying in One Piece: Structures and Materials”-You can see how a dome shape makes tortoise shells, human skulls and eggs difficult to break and learn how burrs and dog fur inspired Velcro. Two interactive activities allowed kids to speed up a video of wind hitting a leaf and play a computer game comparing the strength of different materials, such as a tooth versus spider silk.

Red section, “Going with the Flow: Pumps and Pipes”– This was my 6-year-old’s favorite area. He got to squeeze a model giraffe’s heart and pump pretend blood up to its head, which proved to be challenging even for adults. He also loved filling a model spider leg with fluid to straighten it out. I found it interesting to learn why dead spider’s legs curl up and how soft worms make themselves strong enough to bore through dirt.

Brown section, “Grabbing a Bite: Jaws and Claws”-This area had a cast-metal recreation of an extinct Dunkleosteus fish. My boys had fun pulling handles to test the chomp power of three different fish. But, they quickly sped off to the next section.

Green section, “Crossing the Landscape: Legs and Springs” –Displays cover the mechanics of the Achilles tendon, prosthetic legs and how robots are designed to walk and run. My 4-year-old enjoyed speeding up, slowing down and reversing a video of a cheetah running. It’s incredible to see how still its head remains while it travels at 100 feet per second!

Blue section, “Launching into the Blue: Wings and Fins”-This is where you’ll find the most active experiment, which did mean a long line during our visit. You sit on a high swivel chair and flap a wing to propel yourself in circles. Short wings help you take off quickly but long ones are easier once you finally get going. A video of sharks played for those standing in the 10-minute long line, which entertained my Hammerhead-loving 4-year-old. Other kids were bored, but everyone seemed to enjoy the experiment. Our youngest sat in Dad’s lap and they laughed and flapped wildly together.  Our 6-year-old managed to do it on his own but went even faster on my lap. This section also has a couple of neat videos explaining how humans learned to fly like birds and swim like fish.

Magenta section, “Gathering Intelligence: Eyes, Ears and Beyond”-We learned how a Venus Fly Trap can tell the difference between living prey and drops of water or twigs, why owls have one ear higher than the other and which sea animal has a natural GPS system. Kids line up with a video projection of a human body and follow it: jumping, running and getting hit by soccer balls. It showed the pumps, levers, sensors and heart beat all going on in the machines inside them.

Our Tips:

1. Read a step ahead and point out the fun stuff. The displays are full of fun and interesting information. But, unless your kids are 10 years or older, they will likely need some prompting to engage in each section and help digesting the complex material. But, with our help, our 6-year-old understood almost everything and  our 4-year-old took in bits of it.

2. Be ready to wait. Our kids loved the interactive areas. But, most only allowed for one or two children to try it at a time, which meant lines. If the exhibit is too crowded, children will get bored before they get their turn. So, if you plan to visit on the museum’s free admission or other special activity days, go into the exhibit either at the very start or end of the event, when traffic is usually lighter. One free day during this exhibit will be YMCA’s Healthy Kids Day on Saturday, April 8 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

3. Snap a selfie with “Sue.” Unless you make it to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History to see the real skeleton, this is closest you’ll come to the world’s largest and most complete T. rex skeleton ever found.

4. Plan to stay for at least an hour. Adults and older students could probably spend a few hours absorbing it all. But we found the kids were done in about 30 to 60 minutes.

5. Remember your license plate number if you plan to park on property. You will need that information when you pay the $5 at the kiosk outside the museum.

The Machine Inside: Biomechanics will run through September 4 in the Castle Memorial Building. Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice St. 847-3511, bishopmuseum.org/biomechanics