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Here's Hoping Science Center Helps To Create Scientists

Rick Green

January 02, 2009

Ted Sergi pushed the hard hat down on my head and shoved me into the bowels of the Connecticut Science Center, the glass-and-concrete building with the flying carpet rooftop that, suddenly, presides over the entrance to Hartford.

Hard as it is to believe, something big really is about to happen here.

A once-in-a-generation building will open this spring, right downtown, and it doesn't involve a sports team. This big deal will be impossible to miss, especially at night, when the dramatic floating rooftop is lit up.

This big glass skyscraper is a giant red exclamation point emphasizing a crisis: Not enough kids are into science. It's not a stretch to say this isn't merely the future of Hartford or Connecticut we are talking about.

Sergi, science center president and Connecticut's last bully pulpit education commissioner, leads me up the stairs of the still unfinished building to the grand staircase off Columbus Boulevard, into the 160-foot-high atrium, through the exhibit halls and to the Willy Wonka-style glass elevator.

It isn't done, but I can see this is like nothing else in Hartford. No wonder they've invited President-elect Barack Obama to the opening.

"The American and Connecticut traditions and culture paint science as something that is too hard, and for only a few people," said Sergi, who for the last five years has been presiding over fundraising and construction of a $160 million project that actually gives us something good to say about the legacy of John Rowland.

Science, Sergi told me, "doesn't have to be too hard," and it should interest a lot more people.

This building didn't come cheap taxpayers forked over $120 million, Sergi raised another $40 million but neither is the price we pay for the steady outflow of highly educated young people from the state.

Is it possible that a museum a "science center" could change this? Sergi thinks so, hoping that it will ignite the nascent scientist within at least some of the thousands of students expected to visit.

Sergi told me the scary numbers behind the crisis: Just 13 percent of graduate degrees in the United States are in the sciences, compared to our international competitors, where 30 and 40 percent of graduates study science.

"The whole thing that science is too hard for me is a hard thing to change," Sergi said.

In Connecticut, where we have a high percentage of residents with advanced degrees in science and engineering and the jobs to employ them, we're having a hard time producing new graduates. We're dropping further behind, in fact.

Connecticut schools produce the smallest percentage of bachelor's degrees in the sciences in the nation, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It gets worse. By senior year in high school, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study reports, U.S. students trail students in 17 other countries in math and science literacy.

The ambitious goal of the Cesar Pelli-designed center is to turn kids on to science with hands-on activities and exhibits like the Mars Flyover in the "exploring space" hall.

Sergi and construction manager David Elliott take me through the five large galleries. There's a digital theater ($5,000 will buy you a seat with your own name on it), six floors of exhibit rooms and rooftop decks overlooking the Connecticut River.

If the new center inspires young people to say "I really like that" or "I want to do more of that," then it will be worth it, Sergi said after we finished our tour.

"This is a long-term thing," he said. "The issue here is can we get a greater percentage of our young people excited about science and studying science."

That's the important question. Will this $160 million attraction really mean something or will it merely be a place to go with the kids and out-of-town visitors on a rainy Saturday?

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.
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