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Science Center A Source Of Knowledge And Pride

Hartford Courant

June 06, 2009

Workmen swarm the new Connecticut Science Center on Hartford's Riverfront Plaza like bees on a bed of colorful spring flowers. They are putting finishing touches on the iconic glass building for opening day, June 12.

It is a surprise package for a city that should celebrate this skyline-changing building with unrestrained joy.

The towering structure with its "magic carpet" roof will deliver on a dream that is more than a decade in the making.

Timing, of course, could be better. In an economic climate that applauds frugality, the $162 million science center about three-quarters of it built with public money seems like an extravagance.

But vision is about the long term, and this is as exciting an enterprise as the state has ever shepherded. Taxpayers should embrace their support of this wonderful knowledge factory. Legislators and Gov. M. Jodi Rell should make sure the last of the Six Pillars has enough fuel for a perfect takeoff.

A pre-opening tour of the exhibits that were only partially installed got our pulse elevated for the big opening. Next Friday, the soaring structure opens its doors to the public (after a robot helps Mrs. Rell with the ribbon-cutting).

The exhibits are not just for kids. They are designed to appeal to all ages and all levels of understanding. Visitors can simply have fun learning to manage a sailboat on a windy test track or controlling their brain waves enough to move a ball. If they want more, staff will explain the science behind the moves.

Jaw-dropping attractions abound. A race car demonstrates speed; a musical instrument called the Art Jam think "Guitar Hero" on steroids explores the nature of sound. Kids will love a sports section that gets at the protective properties of helmets and teaches the physics of athletic moves.

Particularly impressive is a gallery about health that will stick to viewers' ribs and, with luck, get them to make healthy food choices. Here, visitors feed puck-shaped "food" to Esther the Digester, who has a TV screen between her chin and her hips that tracks the effects of those choices on her body.

From fascinating kinetic sculptures by Connecticut artist Tim Prentice to the kids' gallery by Hartford author Walter Wick to the transparent elevators to the digital 3D theater, the science center will have it all.

It is intended primarily as a resource for science education. But it is also an intelligent, exciting addition to the state's tourism profile that we can all take pride in. Connecticut, for example, will have the only science center that offers visitors hands-on knowledge of what it's like to roam the surface of Mars.

Now is not the time to pull back, but to build on the state's commitment to an extraordinary undertaking that holds its own against the best in the nation. The science center deserves a chance to test its sea legs without having to worry about running aground.

Revenues generated by ticket sales are purposely low, an average of $15 a head. This is less than comparable attractions, and less than the per-capita cost of running the place. The gate, gift shop sales and private donations are expected to pay most of the annual bill. But management has counted on 15 percent, or $1.2 million, from the state. Right now, operating support in all versions of the state budget falls far, far short. The governor's latest proposal for the next budget cycle suspends funding for the science center and all other cultural attractions in the state.

Connecticut can't have a first-rate science center with second-rate support. The state has too great an interest in its success.

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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