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Center's Ultimate Focus: Solid Science

Interactive Exhibits, Now In Design Phase, Should Help Visitors Explore Real-World Concepts

August 14, 2006
By GRACE E. MERRITT, Courant Staff Writer

When visitors step into the new Connecticut Science Center in Hartford two years from now, they will find a much more interactive approach to the science exhibits.

Rather than the typical push-button activated exhibits found in many museums, most will entice visitors to try out the science involved and will focus on relevant issues such as global climate change or nutrition.

In one exhibit, for example, visitors will be able to experiment by attaching magnets to a vehicle to try to get it to levitate and move over a track. By using the right combination, visitors will learn about magnetic levitation, the same technology that gives the bullet train in Japan its smooth and speedy ride. The visitor might also be asked to consider how magnetism could be used in local transportation.

The idea is to explore science by trying it out, experimenting with it and seeing how it connects to the real world.

"We don't want to be a glorified Toys `R' Us. We want to be meaningful and interactive," said Kurt Haste, 29, a doctoral student at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education.

Haste, whose work is being funded through a portion of a $1 million grant from GE, is evaluating many of the 200 exhibits being developed for the $150 million science center now rising from the construction site next to the Connecticut Convention Center.

His goal is to work with the exhibit designers to make sure that their creations are not only fun, but match the center's inquiry-based philosophy and show visitors how the science connects to their own lives and communities.

For example, an exhibit on human health and nutrition would be set up like a game in which visitors move around a story board and learn about how decisions they make now about nutrition will affect their health later in life.

To supplement the learning, Haste is considering ways to allow visitors to take what they've learned to the next level by connecting it to the community. For example, visitors might use wireless technology in the building to click on a link to a local nutritionist, doctor or gym.

He contrasted the approach to more traditional science center exhibits, such as a ball resting on a cone. The visitor presses a button and the ball rises and floats in the air, pushed up by blowing air funneled up through a cone.

Although the exhibit has an undeniable "wow" factor, it doesn't really explain the underlying scientific principle at work, which is that air molecules inside the cone don't clump together, but instead spread out, Haste said.

"You would never get that from a floating ball," he said.

Some of the other exhibits in the works at the center are more exploration-based, such as a Mars Flyover pod, in which visitors sit in a navigation seat and use a control panel and a joy stick to take a simulated trip over Mars.

Using video taken in the recent Mars expedition, visitors learn more about the Martian surface and try to figure out whether the red planet ever hosted water.

Bonnie VanDorn, executive director of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, praised the center's approach and the careful planning going into the exhibits. She said that inquiry-based exhibits are nothing new, with the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto and the Exploratorium in San Francisco as models. But designing with that approach is more difficult than it sounds.

"It's not easy to do. It's much easier to tell people things than to set up rich learning environments where people can explore their own questions," she said.

The museum, designed by world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli, is scheduled to open in the late spring or early summer of 2008. The 44,000-square-foot building will have 10 galleries, a 3-D format theater, four classrooms and various labs, including a forensic lab.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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