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Connecticut Businesses Offer Funding, Inspiration To Science Center


June 07, 2009

Jennifer Panosky has just the sort of job the Connecticut Science Center wants its young visitors to know about.

The North Stonington resident, a naval architect and marine engineer, is overseeing the development of a small submarine intended to hold a steady speed of 100 knots, or roughly 110 mph, for up to an hour. Nothing like it exists anywhere in the world.

So Panosky's employer, Electric Boat of Groton, decided to share her story with all the center's visitors. She's one of about a dozen employees of Connecticut companies who appear in video interviews to be broadcast continually throughout the center, which opens to the public on Friday.

"These are real people, they're approachable, they're telling their stories with passion in their voices," said Richard Thomas, the center's exhibit director.

The Connecticut Science Center has a broader, more ambitious mission than representing homegrown science and technology industries. It aims to inspire interest in scientific inquiry and a sense of wonder about its possibilities.

Still, the center reflects the contributions of the local companies that support it, helping endow the institution with local flavor.

Corporate Connecticut's biggest impact on the Science Center has come in the form of money, advice and organizational support the traditional mechanisms of corporate philanthropy. In its $165 million capital campaign, the center raised $26.6 million from companies in the state. About a dozen firms pledged or donated at least $1 million, including Aetna, General Electric, Northeast Utilities, Pfizer, Phoenix, Travelers, and United Technologies Corp.

A fifth-floor gallery called "Invention Dimension" houses their more tangible contributions the sort intended to fire imaginations, from a rocket engine to a Wiffle ball.

"Obviously, a rocket engine is very appealing to younger visitors," said Thomas, referring to a Pratt & Whitney RL10, which propels satellites and space probes.

Pratt, a unit of UTC, donated the engine at the center's request and dispatched two engineers from Florida to help install it in the invention gallery, a collection of inventions by local companies. Pratt engineers custom-designed a bracket for suspending the engine at an angle, as if it were in flight.

The RL10 is also the most complex invention in the room. A Wiffle ball, invented in Shelton in 1953 by David N. Mullany, is probably the least complex yet still useful for raising questions about, say, fluid dynamics.

The invention gallery represents the center's largest concentration of technologies devised by Connecticut firms. Kaman Aerospace of Bloomfield contributed some of its Ovation guitars (it used to make and sell instruments, too). Timex (which still has an office in Middlebury) gave one of its first glowing wristwatches. Pfizer Inc. provided models of the molecular structure for several of its major drugs, including Lipitor (but not Viagra).

"The amount of invention that came out of here that has been cutting edge and influenced our lifestyles is amazing," Thomas said of the state.

Overall, the center reflects Connecticut's deep roots in the aerospace industry, and many installations address aspects of flight. Besides its rocket engine, Pratt also contributed a fan blade from one of its larger engines, and Hamilton Sundstrand, another UTC unit, provided an eight-bladed propeller used on military cargo airplanes.

Hamilton also makes NASA's current spacesuit, but the center will display a replica obtained from a Florida company, Guard-Lee.

Hartford is the Insurance City and insurance companies also have something to say about science. Travelers invited Science Center personnel for a tour of its Industrial Hygiene and Forensics Lab in Windsor for a behind-the-scenes look at how the company analyzes claims.

The center wants to keep companies involved by having scientists working in the state address summer school sessions, school-year laboratory meetings and field trip visitors. These programs are still in development and corporate roles are being worked out.

Meanwhile, some firms have invited the center to sell memberships at their offices and facilities.Many exhibit descriptions offer only rudimentary explanations of the relevant scientific principles, if any. But, said Ed Main, the center's spokesman, curious kids will have access to well informed guides with enough scientific knowledge to address the really important questions like, "Why does the Wiffle ball have holes on this side and not on that side?'"

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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