Web Masters 

Stations offer arachnophiles the chance to inspect spider parts through a microscope, practice molting by struggling out of a jumpsuit "exoskeleton" and peer at a venomous black widow spider. Students can even put on a Velcro-covered vest and attach "spider eyes" (tiny cameras, in reality) to their bodies, then try to locate prey on a split-screen monitor.

The activities may sound like games, but all were designed with the SOLs in mind, according to educators at the center (who roll their eyes at the mention of the infamous standardized tests). In a time when it's less of a headache to let kids surf the Internet than roam around a museum, teachers choose their field trips carefully, says the center's development director Robin Newton. If an educational program isn't SOL-relevant, they may skip it altogether. Hence the new room's emphasis on learning principles of biology and math — cleverly disguised as fun.

The old spider room was more like an ordinary classroom. Though beloved by decades of schoolchildren, it wasn't the best way to get kids involved, says A. Christian Lundberg, the center's coordinator for biological, earth and environmental sciences. "This is a playground."

Some kids will press their noses against the acrylic walls of the tarantula's tank. Others would rather stand back and watch a video on the science of web spinning. Interestingly, gender doesn't dictate how students react to arachnids. "They elicit a response for kids, one way or another," Lundberg says.

The center, which is in Henrico County near the Richmond city line, counted nearly 200,000 participants in last year's educational programs, all from Richmond and the six surrounding counties. The new spider room and accompanying Web site, which will be completed May 10, cost an estimated $200,000 to $300,000 to create, Lundberg says. These funds come from a mix of gifts, grants and business partnerships.

The center's staff believes children will be instantly enthralled by the room. "They open the door, and it's like 'Whoa,'" Newton says.

But despite the bright array of signs and computer screens, it's a small, scratched, transparent box that inevitably attracts the visitor's eye. Even for children of the digital age, real spiders have an allure that computers can't copy.

— Melissa Scott Sinclair


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