LOS ALTOS -- If you like concocting slime, dissecting the colors of light or observing your fingertips sweat, downtown Los Altos was a good place to be this weekend.
After informally opening a month ago, Helix Community Science Center, the only suburban outpost of San Francisco's famed Exploratorium, engaged curious and searching minds as it staged its grand opening Friday through Sunday.
And it appeared to be a hit among both young slime seekers and their parents tightly gripping their grande caffe lattes. "Is this good?" asked Amesha Banjara, 8, as she vigorously stirred gel glue, water, borax and bit of glow-in-the-dark pigment.
"What do you think?" volunteer Ryan Olf said. "Slime is a very personal thing."
The hands-on experience is the core and the attraction of Exploratorium science.
"It's good you can do all the experiments instead of just looking at them," said Sam Weltsch, 9, while his sister Ryan, 6, a first-grader at Montclaire Elementary in Los Altos, was trying to see how tall a bridge she could build with metal washers held by two powerful magnets.
Nestled amid Los Altos' boutiques, salons and eateries, Helix's sleek, two-story storefront includes 5,000 square feet of exhibit rooms, gift shop and teaching/meeting space. Many of the 25 exhibits traveled down from the Exploratorium mothership and include popular standbys like an electromagnetic-powered ring toss, a windblown "dunescape" and various brain-fooling optical illusions. Others were created specifically for the custom-designed Helix space, like an "invisible" stained-glass display fashioned from polarizing window film and layers of packing tape.
Funded by a grant, Helix doesn't charge admission; instead it asks visitors only to "pay what you will."
"It's good to find places to get out as a family when it's cold out," said Betsy Schmitt, whose daughters Haley, 11, and Mia, 9, were experimenting with visual perspective by drawing each other's hands and face while sitting on opposite sides of an acrylic pane. It's also nice, Schmitt said, to find a place equally interesting for kids as well as adults.
Helix is tiny compared to its parent, which has attracted more than 600,000 visitors since its new digs at Pier 15 opened in April. But Schmitt and others said that busy families can't easily schlepp up to San Francisco for amusement.
Engaging families in science and as a community are among the goals of Helix, Director Anne Richardson said. "We want them to feel it is their learning science center."
Themed exhibits will rotate through the space, currently focusing on patterns and perceptions.
Apropos of its start-up ethic, within months of coming up with the notion to create a satellite science museum, the Exploratorium found space, hired staff and got a one-year grant. The Passerelle Foundation funds Helix and also 10 temporary mini exhibits from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art -- making tiny downtown Los Altos a small-museum destination of sorts.
Richardson estimated opening-weekend events attracted 200 people each night. She refused to give the size of Helix's grant, and Passerelle did not respond to phone calls.
Founded in 1969 at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium was one of the nation's first science learning centers. It has been dedicated to spreading its mission of teaching and inspiring young minds with hands-on learning, and estimates that 80 percent of its cousin centers around the world have Exploratorium-designed exhibits.
Helix plans to partner with schools and teachers in Los Altos, Richardson said, by offering field trips and help with lessons.
While it's hard to know what was most fun to do at Helix, 9-year-old Sam said, "What's really cool are seeing things that you never thought could happen."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
Address: 316 State St., Los Altos
Admission: Pay what you wish
Dec. 21 through Jan. 5
Starting Jan. 6