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Children's enthusiastic gasps and proud parents' commentary filled the basement of the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum in Ashland Saturday.

Buzzing with children grabbing parents' hands, dragging them left and right out of eagerness, families stepped into a world of imagination -- the opening of the museum’s new regional science and technology education center.

The Children’s Learning Center has walls painted in vibrant orange, green and purple with carpet to match. Surrounded by aircraft models’ neutral grays and browns, it’s almost impossible to miss.

The center is home to 10 different interactive stations designed to teach kids out of the classroom for a more hands-on experience -- ones that will engross them in science, technology, engineering and math, mostly dealing with the physics, forces and technology of flight and structural engineering.

Seven-year-old Mason Miralles of Omaha hung around the aviation area where he learned to make the perfect paper airplane to test in the "twin air blaster" that propelled it upwards.

Just a week before returning to school, Mason was excitedto start learning again the way he prefers -- fewer pens and notebooks and more fun activities at the museum.

"It's pretty cool," he said. "You get to do, like, science experiments and it actually works when you do the right thing with it."

Mason was familiar with the museum beforehand. His father, Jay Miralles, was stationed at the Offutt Air Force Base and helped bring in some of the planes in 1994, before the museum existed. He swells up with pride every time he walks in.

Miralles said the center provides a father-son connection, rooting from his Air Force stories and growing with every visit.

“It forces him to think bigger,” Miralles said. “I want him to dream. If he wants to someday fly a plane, he can.”

Designed from "best practices" for STEM learning and innovation in consultation with Smithsonian Institution’s Spark Lab at the American History Museum and Omaha's Heartland Scenic Studio, the center follows a kinesthetic approach to learning rather than lecture and demonstration.

Along the wild walls are blurbs about aircraft terms and descriptions of how speed, pressure of the air, gravity and thrust effects objects. Engineering-based stations included Lincoln Logs for families to build structures and then test them on the “quake test table” -- a surface that vibrates to find out if their buildings can hold up in an earthquake.

Noah Clayton remembers coming to the museum when he was young. He finally got to bring his wife and four-year-old son, Paul, from Lincoln for the first time Saturday. It’s the chance to teach Paul together as a family that draws them in.

“It’s important to immerse them in this kind of stuff,” Clayton said. “There are not very many museums that have this kind of exhibit anywhere, really. It’s good history for him, too.”

For many of the young kids, the center served as a playground, unaware they were getting an education with each station.

But Becky Meek said her children already picked up on vocabulary just from one of the exhibits, using words like “thrust” and “gravity.”

It was the tennis ball launcher that kept kids lining up for a turn while understanding new terms. Kids are instructed to pull on a rope that launches a tennis ball into the air before falling back into a net and down a tube -- a lesson on what makes a rocket ship fly sky high. The station created an unannounced competition of who could launch the bright yellow ball the highest.

“Hands-on sticks a lot better,” Meek said. “Right now they’re just having fun, but later on when they’re older, they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, Mom, I remember when we did that.’ It does come back. It does good for them.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or lesparrago@journalstar.com

On Twitter @linds_esparrago

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