Franklin Institute's new SportsZone lets you discover the science of athletics

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Eric Welch, prototype manager, cranks the wheels of a bike at the Bike Efficiency interactive exhibit, which shows how proper use of gears can improve performance.

It's the day of the big race and the heat index is rising. How can you stay hydrated? What do you eat, how much and how often? How can you shave down your time - or just make it to the finish line?

The answers all come down to science.

That's the message underlying the Franklin Institute's new $3.1 million SportsZone, opening in October. Through hands-on experiences, SportsZone aims to help visitors discover how knowledge of the human body and laws of motion, coupled with technological innovations, makes for better, injury-free athletes.

If you want to get the most out of this all-ages experience, come prepared to move.

The new exhibit will replace the original Sports Challenge. "We kept the best concepts and then reimagined the exhibit with a 21st-century lens of sports research and technology, physiology, and technology," said Frederic Bertley, senior vice president of science and education.

The Franklin Institute exhibit team recently offered a sneak preview of the interactive devices they designed, currently in fabrication at Art Guild Inc. in West Deptford.

Some favorites in the original exhibit, like Surf Board Balance and Jump Momentum, will return with slight modifications. But the exhibit space will be transformed to look like a sports arena with a field house, indoor track, and outdoor space with turf flooring. It's all divided into three phases familiar to any athlete or sports fan.

READY?

Inside the field house, visitors learn to prepare with nutrition, hydration, and the most effective warm-up exercises. Want the scoop from amateur and pro athletes? You'll get that, too.

Here's the interactive part: In the Energy Balance game, visitors get to take charge of their own avatars to control and balance all the food and activity decisions made during a virtual day.

At the Drink Analysis interactive exhibit, you make decisions for another avatar, a runner who needs your help to navigate the shoals of dehydration and overhydration. Water, sports drinks, soda - determine what the avatar drinks and see how it performs.

"When you do not make the best choices, your runner will become sluggish, visibly slowing down. With the proper choices however, your runner will win the race and you can create their victory dance using motion-capture technology," said Jayatri Das, chief bioscientist and lead exhibit developer.

The Energy Goal station uses guidelines from the Institute of Medicine to calculate your daily caloric needs based on gender, age, weight, height, and activity level. Then, by placing discs representing different calorie amounts onto a balance, you can see how much you really should be eating.

SET.

Next up: the science of sports equipment.

Though no helmet completely protects against concussions, wearing one does reduce the risk of brain injury. The Helmet Test uses a hammer mechanism to deliver blows of varying intensities to two dummy heads, one encased in an NFL regulation helmet, the other without any protection. An accelerometer then measures g-force and tackle intensity to illustrate the difference between the impacts.

The Bike Efficiency interactive site demonstrates how proper use of gears improves cyclists' performance. Visitors get to compete against one another on a virtual course using two hand-cranked bicycles, one driven by a low gear, the other by a high gear. Rushing to the finish line, you feel which works better going uphill and then downhill.

One last step to prepare for the main event: a simulated race with a pro athlete, like Eagles' wide receiver Jordan Matthews, marathon runner Dawn Grunnagle, or paralympic wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden, down a 40-foot interior track that separates the indoor and outdoor sections of the exhibit.

GO!

Step into the outdoor play space to the Body Mechanics Lab to analyze your pitching technique - and sneak in a quick physics lesson. Your pitches will be recorded so you can compare them against an expert's video at the instant-replay station.

"The best way to describe the pitching arm is to liken it to a catapult launch. With ball in hand, the pitcher leans back with leg up and transfers all the energy from his/her mechanical movement to the ball and then leans forward to launch it, hoping it will achieve terminal velocity at the plate," said Bertley.

Whether you're a basketball player receiving a teammate's pass or a table-tennis champ returning a serve, fast reactions are everything in sports.

You can test yourself on a game similar to whack-a-mole, the Reaction Time interactive experience. This is a panel of 12 buttons that light up at random. Your challenge is to hit each lit button as quickly as possible.

"The more you practice, the more you develop strategies to decrease your reaction time, and your brain works faster," Das said.

Reaction times in actual playing conditions, like those of a hockey goalie (0.152 second) and a table tennis player (0.274), are displayed on the device so you can see how your time stacks up against those of the pros.

"We've seen prototype users get reaction times of 0.7-0.8 seconds their first time using the device, but they're able to improve significantly on subsequent tries with practice," said Stefanie Santo, director of public relations at the Franklin Institute.

Another new feature, the Center of Mass Demo, illustrates how understanding where your mass is concentrated can increase your stability. Two blocks mounted on hinged platforms are identical - except for their center of mass. See which falls first when you lift up the platforms.

Nearby, the popular Surfboard Balance returns to reinforce this physics lesson and help you learn how bending your knees or widening your stance can keep you from wiping out on the board.

Philadelphia's famous love for sports and science is a key theme throughout the SportsZone. All the major local professional teams are represented in the exhibit, as is the well-loved voice of sportscaster Merrill Reese.

"Philadelphia is a legendary sports town, as well as a renowned city of science," said Larry Dubinski, president and CEO of the Franklin Institute. "This exhibit shows the vital role science and technology play in all sports and illustrates how incredible feats of athleticism showcase science at work."


tromero@philly.com

215-854-2256

@TraRom