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Whatís Coming Up at the Science Center Ė A Visit in Virtual Time

by Ellen S. Wilson

"We encourage visitors to go on and have fun, and sometimes they get a little wild and crazy. But you have to get them to participate so that theyíll learn." 
Ė Tom Flaherty
This is a busy year at Carnegie Science Center Ė a new look, new exhibits, new shows, and all of it designed solely to give visitors a better experience. In fact, this is a great time to go. Now, however, it is the first cold month of 2000, and jumping ahead to March and April isnít easy. This being a Science Center, however, where imagination and some good power cables make so much possible, my children, George and Olivia, will join me on a virtual tour that will give some hint of what lies ahead.

The first big change will be how the Science Center looks on the outside.

"Everybody sees this great building and they donít know what it is," says the Science Centerís Tom Flaherty. "So weíre changing that."

During the day, big, bright banners will identify Carnegie Science Center to travelers on Rt. 65, the West End Bridge, and the Fort Pitt Bridge. At night, the new look is even more dramatic. By the end of May, an 80-foot sculpture, a vortex-shaped whirl of lights, should be installed atop the Omnimax Theater, drawing the eye from anyone in downtown Pittsburgh and beyond. New dots of light on the sidewalk will sparkle with different colors, and the see-through railings on the new stairs from the lower parking lot will be similarly illuminated with fiber optic cables. While the children wonít care about the newly resurfaced parking lot or other basic improvements, they will be sure to notice this sparkly little touch.

George, 7, and Olivia, 5, tear into the lobby in their customary way and head over to the fountain, where a new interactive laser beam lets you stop the flow of an arching jet of water without getting your hands wet. This will keep them entertained while I pick up tickets at the membership desk. The line for non-members also moves quickly now because of a newly simplified price list. For one sum, general admission includes all exhibits, the submarine, and the planetarium. Omnimax admission is extra.

Tom, a specialist in electronics and Director of Exhibits and Facilities since 1994, is joining us on our imaginary springtime visit, and he doesnít bat an eye at the exuberance with which George and Olivia attack the exhibits. "We encourage visitors to go on and have fun," he says, "And sometimes they get a little wild and crazy. But you have to get them to participate so that theyíll learn." Every exhibit goes through five stages, from initial idea, to proposal, development of goals, design, and operation. Rigorous reviews and testing insure that there are no sharp edges, that everything is accessible, and that even with heavy use the things keep working day after day. 

"Iíve looked at a lot of other exhibits at other science centers, and ours are better," Tom says. "They last longer. I think our fabricators are some of the most talented craftspeople on the planet. Their work is truly exceptional, and we try to make as many of the exhibits here as possible."

Thus reassured that my kids can do no damage, I release them into the irresistible appeal of SciQuest, a landmark exhibit that changed the way the Science Center works. Tom and the Exhibit Design team have upgraded the components and text panels in this space over the past three years, and it remains the first stop for many visitors. We always bat the floating eyeball around and whisper through the echo tube before doing anything else.

On we go, skipping (the kids, anyway) up the ramp past the new marquee over the Science Stage, and around the atrium, soon to be the site of a cool new mobile that takes advantage of its 65-foot height. A beautiful addition to the space, the mobile will also reveal the movement of air currents.

Arriving on the fourth floor, George and Olivia head for their new favorite place, Exploration Station (see January/February 2000 CARNEGIE magazine). This area alone, with its water tables, chick hatchery, construction projects and more, could keep me and the kids entertained well past the point of exhaustion. Our current visit being imaginary, however, we still have plenty of time to go back down to the third floor and have a seat in the brand new Kitchen Theater. Rebuilt to hold 75 people, twice its former size, and redesigned with a diner theme, the theater is in its own separate space now, which gives the presenters better control over noise and lighting.

I rest my feet and watch the kids help prepare liquid nitrogen ice cream before we leave the theater and walk into the underwater world of Sea Scape. The three aquariums in the coral reef exhibit have been augmented by a fourth, containing a mangrove tree that juts out a few feet over the atrium and heads up to the skylight. In tropical areas, mangroves provide a breeding area for coastal fish, and there is almost always something interesting to watch in this new tank. 

The original tanks have also been enhanced, with eight cameras that zoom in on underwater life, computer kiosks that give in-depth information about the contents of the tanks, and a video microscope with fixed slides projected onto a large monitor. If a staff member is present (and there usually is), they will present live slides of coral specimens, leaves, or algae. Pictures over the tanks orient visitors to their location in the seascape and show how this ecosystem fits together. A new, supervised touch tank will contain mainly invertebrates and provide yet another opportunity for small visitors to get wet while they explore the wonders of nature.

More watery activities include a refurbished yellow submarine and a chance to see the world through the eyes of a fish. This sea-like atmosphere will owe a lot to students from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, who were given a class assignment to develop the environment and will log 1000 hours in the science center workshop over the spring and summer to make it happen.

Adults may be wearing down at this point, but the energy stores of seven and five year olds are vast. We amble down the ramp (hey! new carpet!) to the second level and stop in to see an old friend, the Miniature Railroad and Village. Initially, nothing looks different. Thatís because you donít see the new computer system running things. You donít see the people who have gained access to the trains via the Internet and are now watching them whiz around the tracks from home. If Science Center designers and Opto 22, the company working on the new interactive website, have their way, tiny cameras will be mounted on the trains so that you feel like you are actually riding them.

After the railroad, we are ready for a different kind of transportation, and take our seats in Buhl Planetarium to see "New Cosmos," which opens April 8. John Radzilowicz, Director of the Planetarium and Observatory, explains that this show is about advances in astronomy and space exploration over the past 100 years. "Circus of the Stars" is also a favorite show, and weíll be back for that another time.

Finally, we canít resist checking out some of the components of the upcoming ZAP Surgery, the Science Centerís newest traveling exhibit. The latest in non-invasive surgical techniques such as endoscopy, cryosurgery, laser surgery and gamma knife surgery are featured in this exhibit, which opens at the Science Center in February 2001. In the meantime, visitors can have a look at various pieces of the exhibit between April and June when they are set up on the second floor for testing.

It is way past lunchtime, but weíll check out the River View Café anyway, and have a little something. New signs and a new layout make this area easier to navigate, and take advantage of the views of the river. Tom points out that the staff are continually looking for ways to improve a visit to the Science Center.

As we thank Tom and head to the car, I notice that the kids seem revved up, rather than exhausted. This is how a museum should work, I think, not wearing you out, but inspiring you and opening up new possibilities. George and Olivia have done all they can possibly do for one day, but rather than being drained, their little batteries are charged and ready for whatever lies ahead.

Ellen S. Wilson is a frequent contributor to CARNEGIE magazine.


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