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Science Center's 150 Exhibits Include Space And Sports, Climate And Gravity


June 11, 2009

With its striking architecture, the Connecticut Science Center has already become a noticeable Hartford landmark. But what about inside do the exhibits live up to the anticipation?

The center's 150-plus exhibits take up a little more than a quarter of the 144,000-square-foot building. Education is the big focus here. Center officials have said they want to inspire future generations of scientists, doctors and teachers. The center's press materials say that "the center's many exhibits apply concepts students will recognize on Connecticut Mastery Tests, preparing them to meet the high demand of new science education standards."

That might be the dreariest promise ever made who wants to spend a day off prepping for standardized tests? Luckily, the exhibits are a lot more fun than that sentence indicates.

Earlier this week, maintenance crews were working throughout the building and some of the exhibits sported "Under Construction" signs, but most were set to go. Center spokesman Edward Main said he expects "95 percent" of the exhibits to be ready for Friday's opening.

Exhibits are on floors 4, 5 and 6. We suggest starting at the top of the building and working your way down; begin your visit with a ride to the top in one of the impressive glass elevators.

Sixth floor

Climate and the Connecticut River are the main subjects here. One station has a model of a river in which the sand can be shifted to see how buildup affects water flow.

In another exhibit, the visitor can give a weather forecast before a camera complete with a green screen background, on which weather maps can be projected. This sounds like fun, but it was still under construction when we saw it. Energy City explores the world of alternative fuels. How do solar panels turn sunlight to energy, and what's the best way to position them? There's a simulated kitchen that gives visitors different energy choices to make.

The top floor also has Climate Change Theater, a geodesic dome in which a herd of sheep discuss weather patterns. Be prepared for inclement weather while watching the 3-D film, as mist and light rain become part of the production.

Fifth floor

Sports, health and space are the themes of Floor 5.

Large concave video screens give visitors a sense of floating over the landscape of Mars, or taking a personal tour through the Milky Way.

Other fifth-floor exhibits deal with more earthly matters, like digestion. Give food (actually cardboard slabs with pictures of food) to Esther the Digester. Pull the lever, and Esther tells you how many calories she has ingested and what she needs to do to work it off. There's also "What Are My Choices?" a tabletop video game for up to five people, in which players grab as many healthy foods as they can.A prosthetics station looks promising, but is mainly a handful of TV screens in which people with prosthetic limbs tell their stories. It's interesting, but this exhibit could easily be overshadowed by flashier, more interactive stations. For instance, a few feet away is "Mind Ball," a game in which two players try moving a ball with their minds. Bands with biosensors are fastened around the players' heads and measure alpha and theta waves. Counterintuitive to most competitions, it's the most relaxed player who wins this game, as the least-stressed brain will move the ball farthest.

The Invention Dimension exhibit features a display wall of some of Connecticut's great innovations. Kids might be surprised to learn that Connecticut produced the Ovation guitar, the Wiffle Ball and glowing watches.

The museum also takes on the curious subculture known as circuit bending, in which techies manipulate electronic gadgets toward various purposes. In "Circuit Hack," you create your own ad-hoc music synthesizers out of electronic toys.

Visitors can go to the Sports Lab and design a virtual bike, or get advice from professional baseball coaches (on video) on how to throw a baseball. Then there's the helmet crash test. Pick a helmet football, bicycling, lacrosse, etc. place it on a mannequin's head and watch a mechanized hammer pound it with varying degrees of force. An overhead screen tells you how much a real human head would have suffered. It makes its point dramatically, and isn't as grisly as it sounds.

Fourth floor

Velocity! Gravity! Lasers! Things that fall and roll and make lots of sounds play a big role on Floor 4.

With the Forces in Motion exhibit, visitors adjust boat sails to make maximum use of the wind and build Lego cars to learn how gravity affects motion. Another car race, likely to be a big hit, teaches the lesson of starting slow and building speed. (Don't spin your wheels.) Yet another track requires problem-solving skills. Adjust the angles and the width of the track sections to ensure that the ball makes its way from beginning to end. We tried it. It's tricky.

Go to the Science of Sound section and watch sound waves make patterns in sand. At another station, listen to your own voice as it wends its way from your mouth, up a spiraling tube and a half-second later into your ear.

Complex science

Most of the exhibits are self-explanatory, but the science behind them can be complex. There are six gallery scientists throughout the center who will give demonstrations and answer questions.

The team is led by gallery program manager Jason Archer, who took some time to show off a few examples of technology that haven't made their way to the floor just yet. There's Rescue Annie, a state-of-the-art, first-aid mannequin with simulated heart rate and breathing. There's a wind tunnel that produces gusts of up to 45 mph to test drag on cars and other vehicles. And more high-tech gadgetry is expected to arrive soon, including various types of scopes telescopes, solar scopes and spotting scopes.

Even with some of the exhibits under construction, it looks like the center is striking a balance between fun and education. There's a lot to take in, though. So either set aside a good chunk of time, or plan more than one visit.

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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