There was no school for Missoula County Public Schools students on Monday, but that didn’t stop more than 30 youngsters from using the day to wallow in science.

Huddled around tables at the spectrUM Campus Clubhouse in downtown Missoula, inquiring minds ages 6 to 12 had fun building overly engineered contraptions to perform simple tasks.

What was called the Crazy Contraptions No-School Camp was an invitation to build catapults with popsicle sticks, tape and spoons; to take apart toys and recreate them in unique ways; make things with a 3D printer; and to create hand puppets illuminated with LED lights.

The focused minds and busy hands went to work with joyful play, and sometimes a spontaneous singing of “Jingle Bells.”

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It was a great way to spend a day off from school, said Colin Harper, 10.

“It’s really fun here because you get to do all this creative stuff,” Harper said while sewing a green hand puppet with conductive thread and carefully placing the exact spot he wanted to sew on the LED light he had assembled.

“This is not a lecture on brains all day or sitting around – you get all day to do your own stuff, to make stuff.”

His challenge of the afternoon, which was shared by 18 others in the older kids’ group, was to figure out how to get the hand puppet lights to turn on and off on demand.

After puzzling the problem for a while, Harper decided “it will be my puppet’s eye, and I’m going to make it so when you close the mouth, the light turns on, and when you open it up, the light turns off.”

After learning how to assemble the light and its battery, Beckett Arthur said spectrUM is a cool place to learn stuff.

“I’ve been here more than 10 times – it’s awesome,” Arthur said. “I love science and the activities. I really like to make things, and what we do here is interesting.”

“It’s awesome because you don’t have to do work sheets or get homework,” said Lydia Garrick, 9. “You get to do fun activities all day.”

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Problem solving and intellectual exploration for the fun of it is the whole point of spectrUM, said Jessie Herbert, museum manager.

Located at the University of Montana and in a spacious second location on Front Street in downtown Missoula, spectrUM offers exhibits, activities, and demonstrations on-site and through its mobile science program that brings hands-on science to communities and schools across Montana.

The downtown facility is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

But it is also open “when school is out, spectrUM is in,” Herbert said, including when MCPS is on winter break.

“We want to provide a fun place for kids to explore science,” Herbert said, “to get hands-on with science and technology outside of school.”

“I think the hands-on experience piques their interest – even if they don’t remember everything when they leave here, they will remember that playing with science is fun,” she said. “We relieve that (school) pressure to perform, to get A’s.

“Here, they just get to create.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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