Of the Baker City Herald

In one classroom, two dozen elementary school students are holding snakes like theyve been handling what minutes before were icky creatures all their lives.

In another, detectives in training are solving the fictional crime that stymied Scotland Yards finest: Who smashed the display case at the local museum and stole The Baseball Diamond?

Just down the hall, apprentice chemists are creating goopy, stretchy polymers by mixing precise amounts of chemicals together.

All the while, the 360 students who took advantage of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industrys Outreach program in Baker City Saturday learned at least two things.

Science is a blast and it can be taught in ways that spark creativity in the minds of young students.

OMSI vans stuffed full of science gadgets and engaging staffers have trekked to Baker City every year for the past 15 years or so, said one of the events organizers, Cherrie Conklin.

Most of these kids would never get the chance to visit OMSI, Conklin said. Its a wonderful program, and, since we get a lot of volunteers and the school district is nice enough to lend us (the middle school) building, its entirely self-supporting.

Its science outreach, really, explained one of the presenters, Todd Farris, who led classes ranging from undersea exploration to the aforementioned junior detective training. Its a special effort to get to the rural communities where you dont have as much access to neat, fun, interactive science stuff.

Jennifer Meyer, a herpetologist at Brads World Reptiles in Corvallis, allowed a half-dozen or so brave students each hour to hold her colorful array of snakes. And while they handled the reptiles, as the name of the class suggested, Up Close and Personal, Meyer regaled students with fun facts about the reptile that has suffered a bum rap since the Garden of Eden.

One snake, for example, fools potential predators by playing dead, sticking its tongue out, and releasing from its rear end an odor that smells like rotting flesh.

Its an excellent way for her to survive, Meyer said, rubbing the thespian/reptile.

At one point, Meyer spread a Taiwanese beauty snake out among three students, instructing them to imitate a tree.

Dont be nervous, Meyer advised the trio. Remember: trees dont move and they dont squirm.

With her strong prehensile tail, this snake can hang like a vine, the students learned. As a result, Meyer said, her dinner flies right up to her and lands in her lap. It couldnt be easier for her.

If fear of snakes didnt faze students, maybe a class called Cowabunga Chemistry might worry parents a bit especially after teacher Chris Grubb provided this definition:

Chemistry, he told his young charges with a devilish grin, is the science of mixing things together and seeing what happens.

School administrators will be happy to learn that nothing destructive happened Saturday. Dozens of students did learn about polymers, long chains of molecules that can take the form of Styrofoam or, when students measure and mix carefully, as all did Saturday, they can create polymers with highly technical scientific names, like gloop and slime.

It may have been in Farris Crime Lab course that students had to use their noggins the most. A 30-minute crash course in police basics fingerprints, fibers, handwriting, hair and footprints was all students had before being called upon to help Farris solve his fictional diamond heist. After examining a notebook full of clues, students had to decide among four suspects: Art Collector, the museum curator; Justin Case, the security guard; museum benefactor Ivana Diamond; or Gretta Clue, a rather lost museum-goer.

Every student in one class deduced that Clue, played convincingly by Taylor Ellis, was the guilty party, and Farris dutifully slapped the handcuffs on her, momentarily.

What did you learn today? Farris asked the students.

You have to look at all the evidence before you arrest somebody, said one.

It was fun figuring out the clues and deciding who the criminal was, said another.

In the end, the real fun will be for middle school students this Thursday. Conklin said that enough money remained to bring the OMSI group back Thursday for a morning assembly.

Its our way of saying thank you for letting us use their building all these years, she said.