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What's New at the California Science Center? A lot!

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What if I told you that just minutes from downtown Los Angeles, situated between USC and the LA Memorial Coliseum in historic Exposition Park, there exists a kelp forest, which is home to more than 1,500 fish and other marine animals?

Would you believe it?

Well, you should, because this "Rainforest of the Sea" is just one part of a brand new permanent exhibition wing at the California Science Center.

The California Science Center will unveil the new "Ecosystems" exhibit, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony this Thursday. The major expansion adds 45,000 square feet to the Center - nearly doubling the amount of exhibition space - and features more than 250 species of living plants and animals and hands-on science exhibits in 11 immersive environments - unique among science centers in the United States.

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The California Science Center "aspire[s] to stimulate curiosity and inspire[s] science learning in everyone by creating fun, memorable experiences, because we value science as an indispensable tool for understanding our world, accessibility and inclusiveness, and enriching people's lives." From walking through a living kelp forest to experimenting on a polar ice wall, both children and adults will be awed and inspired while learning about some of the Earth's most fascinating ecosystems.

Here are some of the highlights from our recent visit:

Why do we let some animals into our home, but then try to keep other animals out? In the kitchen, a mouse is a pest and we call the exterminator. But in the bedroom, the mouse is a member of the family, complete with running wheel, toys, and food.

The Family Discovery Room helps the youngest visitors learn about the family home as an ecosystem. Visual and interactive exhibits showcase worms in a backyard garden compost pile and mice munching on crumbs in the kitchen.

Walk through a 24-foot long transparent acrylic tunnel and see the life that exists in our coastal Kelp Forests. “Rain Forests of the Sea,” the 188,000 gallon kelp habitat illustrates the incredible diversity existing in our sea forests. The exhibit demonstrates how kelp forests depend on four basic factors: a rocky substrate, sunlight, moving water and high nutrient levels. Horn sharks, swell sharks, giant sea bass, wolf eels, bat rays, and garibaldi (California's state fish) will be among the more than 1,500 fish seen in this habitat.

Visitors can learn about life in the most extreme ecosystems on Earth. See how live animals like tortoises, scorpions, and lizards are able to survive in the extreme heat of the desert.

Near the oceans' Deep Sea Vents, ambient temperatures can be up to 760 degrees Fahrenheit and sunlight is non-existent. Visitors will learn how organisms have adapted to this harsh climate by using the Earth’s own internal heat to replace sunlight, and other adaptations. Real preserved specimens collected from around real vents, including shrimp, tubeworms and crabs, are on display.

Life at the Poles can be tough, unless you're prepared to deal with the extreme cold. On a large cold ice wall, visitors get to try out different mittens simulating how animal fur and feathers provide insulation to keep warm.

The surface of the Kelp Forest in the place where ecosystems collide at the Rocky Shore. Here, at a touch tank with sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, snails and more, visitors can learn first-hand about how different organisms have adapted to this extreme environment.

At the Rocky Shore, visitors can also learn about waves and tides by watching the artificial wave machine, and can experience life as a barnacle in a game that demonstrates how hard it must be to find something to eat in the violent waters of the intertidal zone.

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These represent only a tiny fraction of the things to see and do in Ecosystems. But one other exhibit is worth mentioning: the L.A. Zone.

Interactive exhibits invite guests to explore how cities function as ecosystems, but with unique challenges in the issues of energy, water, waste and wildlife. Use a multi-touch map (a table-sized iPhone!) to pan around the Los Angeles Basin and learn about weather patterns, wind currents, and the geologic make-up of Southern California. Find your house and other landmarks on a gigantic floor map spanning the gallery. Sit on a bicycle and see how much more energy it takes to light up a grid of standard incandescent lightbulbs than a grid of energy-efficient CFL bulbs (hint: it's like going to the gym!)

Ready to go check out Ecosystems?
Admission to Ecosystems exhibits is free; however, to provide a quality guest experience, entry will be regulated with a timed ticket which can be acquired online, by phone or in person at the Box Office. A service or convenience fee will apply. There will also be a “standby” line for those who do not wish to purchase an entry ticket. Priority entry to Ecosystems will be available with an IMAX ticket purchase or for Science Center members. For details, please visit the website at www.californiasciencecenter.org or phone (213) 744-2019.

The California Science Center and IMAX Theater are located in historic Exposition Park just west of the Harbor (110) Freeway at 700 Exposition Park Drive, Los Angeles. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. For recorded information, including IMAX show times, call 323.SCIENCE (323.724-3623).

IMAX ticket prices range from $5.00 to $8.25. For advance ticket purchases, group rates, or to make reservations for any visiting group of 15 or more (required), call 213.744-2019. Parking is available in the guest lot at Figueroa and 39th / Exposition Park Drive at $8 per car, $10 for school buses and $25 for commercial buses or oversize vehicles. Both the Science Center and IMAX Theater are wheelchair accessible. For further information, please visit the website at www.californiasciencecenter.org.

Diver photo courtesy California Science Center, Leroy Hamilton/Photographer. All other photos by Jason Goldman/LAist.