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Science Center’s Formula for ‘Wow’

TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

Jeffrey N. Rudolph, his expression as somber as his two-button gray worsted suit, pedaled a bicycle out along a high wire stretched 43 feet above the floor of the new $130-million California Science Center in Exposition Park.

At midpoint in the void, Rudolph, the center’s 42-year-old executive director, gingerly released the handlebars, extended his arms and grinned gleefully.

The principles of gravity, which under other circumstances would hurl him to the floor so far below, had been harnessed through a clever arrangement of counterweights to keep him balanced safely aloft, no matter how much he leaned to the left or right. Gaining confidence, he flapped his arms as if they were wings.

“Ahhhh, the inner child comes out,” exhibit engineer Rosalie Kessling, who was monitoring Rudolph’s test ride, said approvingly.

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That is just the reaction the center’s 290 curators, designers, consultants and administrative staff have been hoping for since planning for the region’s newest public museum started a decade ago. If the public agrees when it opens next Saturday, the science center will put Southern California in touch with its inner child in a dozen different ways through vividly conceived science lessons housed in a landmark new building that offers dramatic views of the Los Angeles cityscape.

Indeed, Rudolph’s trust in the safe workings of the bicycle exhibit is one small token of his conviction that the 245,000-square-foot center and its seven-story IMAX theater--the keystone of a $300-million renovation of Exposition Park and its facilities--can restore science and technology to a prominent place in the public heart of Southern California.

Situated between the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the park’s expansive rose gardens, the science center is an imaginative lesson plan distilled in concrete, stainless steel and terra cotta tile.

It is a place where fundamental concepts take mind-teasing physical form. Basic questions and observations of the natural world are literally underfoot--inscribed on the stone slabs that pave the entranceway. One inscription admonishes: “The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

From a five-story kinetic sculpture to a 50-foot robot that lectures on human biology with a wave of its 2-ton arm, curators have infused the center with a remarkable theatricality. There is a walk-in microscope, a virtual reality space docking simulator, and discovery rooms decorated with Toontown flair.

“We want people to say, ‘Wow!’ ” Rudolph said.

“If we accomplish that--if people feel empowered and knowledgeable--then we will have made a meaningful impact.”

Entertaining and Educating

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The high-wire bicycle is an apt metaphor for the center’s own balancing act, as it rides the line between entertainment and education--competing with traditional amusement parks for visitors without sacrificing the integrity of its teaching mission.

“There are pressures to make decisions more on marketing than on educational mission,” Rudolph said. “We have to attract people. We think about marketing. We think about the draw. But we also try to maintain an educational experience.”

Deputy Director Ann Muscat said the center’s challenge is to keep its institutional equilibrium centered on the line between play and learning, while competing fiercely with theme parks, computer games, cable television and other commercial “edutainment” venues for the attention of millions of students, parents and teachers.

It is a taste of things to come for the 160-acre urban oasis of Exposition Park.

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Even as they cut the ribbon to open the center, officials are preparing to break ground this fall for a $30-million science elementary school on the center grounds. On the drawing boards are a $90-million aquarium and a $65-million hall devoted to astronomy and space exploration. The center’s aerospace hall, housed in an existing building, is to undergo six months of renovation starting next month.

Under a master plan recently given an urban design award by the American Institute of Architects, officials also hope to double the amount of open parkland, turning asphalt lots back into green space and adding tree-shaded promenades. Four playgrounds are under construction.

Working in partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District and USC’s Graduate School of Education, the growing center complex is designed to play a crucial role in shaping science education throughout the region. This comes at a time when state educators are struggling for ways to better teach science in public schools and experts nationwide are bemoaning the public’s scientific ignorance.

The National Science Foundation recently reported that while more than two-thirds of Americans believe science is important to their lives, only 1 in 9 believes he or she is well informed about it and only 1 in 4 demonstrates any science literacy.

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“People increasingly think science is a black box,” said Loren Behr, director of programs at the California Academy of Sciences. “In our society, we tend to have a lot of confidence in science to solve our problems but we have absolutely no idea about how scientists arrive at the solutions.”

The ignorance spans all fields of scientific endeavor.

More than half of American adults are unaware that the last dinosaur died before the first human arose or that electrons are smaller than atoms. Three-quarters do not know that antibiotics kill bacteria but not viruses. Almost half of American adults do not know that the Earth orbits the sun, the National Science Foundation survey reported.

Children are often as hard-pressed to find the answers to such science questions at school as they are at home. In many schools, inadequately trained teachers are often over their heads with matters of science and technology.

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In fact, the privately funded National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future determined recently that in schools with the highest minority enrollments, students had less than a 50% chance of getting a science or mathematics teacher who held a license or a degree in the field.

Against this backdrop, Rudolph and his colleagues have created a science center that several museum experts already hail as one of the largest and most sophisticated in the country. It replaces Exposition Park’s old Museum of Science and Industry, which was closed in 1990. Officials readily acknowledge that the old museum was “uninspiring” and that its exhibits were an “ill-conceived hodgepodge.”

In the new science center, “there are gee-whizzes wherever you look,” said USC Dean of Education Gilbert Hentschke, who has toured the facility three times in recent weeks.

Fred Shair at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s office of education, said simply: “I fell in love with their vision.”

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The California Science Center, however, is meant to be more than a haven for children on a rainy afternoon.

Center officials and area educators have made the new facility the focus of an ambitious effort to develop new techniques for teaching science in the public schools. That puts the center at the forefront of a trend in education that has seen the creation of more than 300 science museums across the country in recent years, said Bonnie Van Dorn, executive director of the Assn. of Science and Technology Centers.

“One of the things that impresses me about the reinvention of the science center is its commitment to top-level collaborations with schools,” she said.

Only Buffalo and Phoenix have made a public school a formal part of a science center. No other center, however, has such ambitious plans to serve as a laboratory for new teaching techniques or has reached out so extensively to disadvantaged neighborhoods, experts said. Science centers traditionally draw the bulk of their support from affluent suburbs.

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“Nationally, we are seeing a growing trend toward relationships between science centers and the schools and universities that train teachers. But there are not very many science centers that have taken on [the] kind of bold, formal collaboration” being undertaken in Los Angeles, Van Dorn said.

“It takes a lot of work and energy,” she said. “It makes this place stand out.”

A Populist Expression of Aspirations for L.A.

The California Science Center is the second major museum to open in Los Angeles in recent months. Comparisons to the new Getty Center are perhaps inevitable, in part because the institutions are exemplars of what British essayist C.P. Snow called the two cultures of art and science.

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The $1-billion Getty, on 110 acres high above the city, is designed to enrich and is a triumph of private taste, privately and lavishly endowed. Through its collections, it embodies a culture’s relationship to its past, harnessing science to restore and preserve the arts.

In contrast, the new state science center is a populist expression of a community’s aspirations for its future, located in the heart of its urban neighborhoods.

A collection of concepts rather than artifacts, it owes its existence to a coalition of public officials, private citizens and corporate philanthropists. Throughout the center, designers have used art to reflect the spirit of science.

In its essence, the new science center is the expression of an impulse as “basic as wanting people to understand our world so they can make informed choices,” said Gayle Wilson, wife of Gov. Pete Wilson, who toured the center recently as curators were putting the finishing touches on exhibits.

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“They have done a fantastic job,” she said. “It sparks curiosity and will encourage children to explore and discover. This museum will encourage them to learn while having fun.”

The center’s designers--led by the Los Angeles architectural partnership of Zimmer Gunsel Frasca and Oakland-based West Office Exhibition Design--have sought to cultivate a contemplative yet playful frame of mind in visitors from the moment they approach the facility.

The public will enter through the California Gate--a pair of granite plinths 13 feet high that in the empty space between them create a map of the state--and stroll past a 113-foot-long, terraced waterfall into an open-air pavilion.

There, one may sit on the “DNA bench,” shaped like a cross-section of the molecule of life and wreathed in mist from a fog machine at its center, or pause to read quotations from poets such as Maya Angelou and Lao-tze etched in the stone.

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Overhead, a constellation of 1,500 gold- and palladium-plated spheres, meant to evoke the swirling cosmos, reflects the magenta-colored sunlight filtering through an immense skylight of special dichoric glass.

The setting is intended to take one from the microscopic to the telescopic in a glance, Muscat said.

To the right, visitors can enter a new, 485-seat IMAX theater, with a screen seven stories high and 90 feet wide that can handle both 3-D IMAX and conventional large-format IMAX films. The old IMAX theater will be torn down.

Through the center’s main entrance, a 10,000-square-foot courtyard feeds into a large museum store, several restaurants and two major permanent exhibit halls.

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Animating the main lobby is a motorized, six-sided sculpture by New York engineer Chuck Hoberman of an expanding hyperbolic paraboloid, a so-called minimal surface, like that formed in a soap bubble. The 5,000-pound sculpture, made of more than 2,500 aluminum links, expands from a compact cluster 15 feet across to a double curve 50 feet high.

“A piece like this is something between a sculpture and an event,” Hoberman said. “As an event, there is an element of choreography. The idea is that it is variable, to create a variety of experiences.

“It invites the next step of ‘Why?’ ” he said.

To begin to answer that, the center’s $8-million Creative World area examines the technology of our everyday lives, from electronics to transportation, through 22,000 square feet of exhibits including digital jam sessions, virtual volleyball and a wind tunnel.

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“The exhibit images are both positive and negative, showing what we have accomplished but also the problems that we have dealt with, to understand the consequences of technology,” Muscat said.

The $7-million World of Life area probes the biological processes that all living things have in common, by showing how plants, people and other animals perform critical functions.

Certainly, all the exhibits are as elaborately produced as any theme park ride, scripted as carefully as a television pilot and tested for focus groups as thoroughly as a national advertising campaign.

The centerpiece of the BodyWorks exhibit in the World of Life hall is a $1.5-million 50-foot anatomically correct body simulator called Tess, which is part of a multimedia presentation on how the human body maintains its biological balance. It took 220 special effects experts, computer programmers, lighting designers, animators, scriptwriters and actors to create the exhibit.

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“Tess seemed like an ideal mechanism to communicate the idea of how the organs work together to keep your body in balance,” said curator David Combs. “It is an intensely theatrical, highly produced piece that really takes advantage of technology to help get people interested.”

There also is an 8,000-square-foot hall for traveling science exhibits, which will open with a display called Science in Toyland and will be followed later this year by the Power of Numbers, developed at the Franklin Museum of Science in Philadelphia.

Those who have watched the center take shape say it is a dramatic improvement over the Museum of Science and Industry.

“They have taken some of the best things of all of the other existing types of [science] facilities,” said David Ucko, president of the Kansas City Museum, which is undergoing its own $234-million expansion project. “They have become much more science focused, much more thematic, tying things together.”

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Admission Is Free; Budget Is Tight

Museum visitors who ride the high-wire bicycle will have the benefit of a safety net, but the center has decided, as a matter of policy, to perform without the financial safety net of guaranteed public funding.

Center officials expect more than 2 million visitors a year--at least 200,000 of them schoolchildren on field trips. But, unlike many counterparts around the country, the California Science Center will not charge admission. And only about a third of its $17-million annual operating budget is covered by state funding.

Without admission revenues, the center must therefore rely on a mixed bag of film and parking revenues, corporate philanthropy, individual donations and concession sales.

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To make ends meet, considerable space is set aside for revenue-producing areas such as a retail gift shop called the Explorastore and a conference center that can serve a sit-down dinner for 500 or handle meetings of up to 700.

The IMAX theater, which center officials expect to draw about 700,000 people a year, will charge $7.50 for 3-D films and $6.50 for more conventional IMAX features.

From its inception, the Science Center has operated on shoestring financing.

In all, the center has raised about $128 million from private and public sources. At every juncture, center officials displayed a gift for making a virtue of necessity.

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For example, the seed money for construction--$47 million in state money--came from funds originally allocated to make earthquake repairs to the old Museum of Science and Industry building, which used to be on the site.

The master plan first took shape under then-Gov. George Deukmejian and then-Assemblywoman Maxine Waters. Gov. Wilson, state Sen. Teresa Hughes and then-Assemblywoman Marguerite Archie-Hudson helped secure funding.

The California Science Center Foundation, now headed by Board of Trustees President John Sussman, has raised more than $33 million from the private sector.

A series of key grants from NASA, JPL and the National Science Foundation helped underwrite the development of the exhibits and jump-start the education programs.

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The largest single corporate contributor was Toyota, which donated $1.8 million to help underwrite transportation exhibits.

“If you are familiar with science test scores internationally, American high school students rank pretty damn near the bottom,” said James Olson, senior vice president of external affairs for Toyota Motor Sales USA. “We thought it was a good place to put our leverage.”


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