Science center engages kids, adults

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HARTFORD — A new science center here offers to take visitors on journeys ranging from exploring the moon to sampling underground carbon dioxide levels.

The Connecticut Science Center, which opened in June, houses exhibits ranging from helmet crash tests to DJ music mixing. Visitors can ride orange elevators 144 feet up to the sixth floor, working their way down through over 150 exhibits.

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Hank Gruner, the center’s vice president of programs, said the center incorporates actual artifacts, new technology and hands-on materials in its exhibits. If visitors take time to explore all the features of a given exhibit, they can spend up to an hour on one feature within the exhibit alone, Gruner said.

Although Tuesday afternoon was quiet — there were not more than 35 visitors around closing time at 5 p.m. — Gruner said during the weekend, the museum gets around 1,500 visitors a day.

The museum is geared mostly to children and often works with teachers to conduct trips and programs in the center’s labs and classrooms. Gruner estimated that 65,000 to 75,000 students will visit the museum this year. But adults also enjoy the exhibits, Gruner said — in fact, Gruner said he once saw adults playing on an exhibit marked for children six and under.

“The dads were hogging the exhibit,” Gruner said.

The center also teaches visitors about environmental issues and tries to be as sustainable as possible, Gruner said. The museum uses electricity from a hydrogen cell, he added, and the windows are designed to maximize natural lighting in the center. The center is certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold — the second highest rating possible — by the U.S. Green Building Council, he said.

The museum is conducting several studies on its visitors to test the effectiveness of its exhibits and programs, Gruner said. The museum has had certain visitors wear colored beads to track the demographics of the visitors, he said.

Each floor of the museum is based around a different theme. The sixth floor, which overlooks the town of West Hartford and the East Hartford River, features a rooftop garden. So far, the garden — which will open in the spring — is one-third garden and two-thirds weeds, Gruner said. The floor also features an exhibit on climate change and alternative energy sources, with a 20-minute show taught by virtual sheep. The floor also houses the broadcasting station of WSFB meterologist Mark Dixon.

The fifth floor includes a sports lab, a health exhibit, an area for inventions and a section about space exploration. The sports lab featured a helmet crash test that allows users to raise a hammer to a desired height and smash a model skull to test the force of impact given a variety of different helmets. The health exhibit features “Esther the Digester,” a computerized woman whose body size changes depending on what people feed her and how much they make her exercise. Another machine pits two visitors against each other by seeing who could relax his brainwaves more.

The area for inventions highlights student winners of the annual Connecticut Science Fair. The space exploration section, Gruner said, is popular with adults. Visitors can ride on flight simulators using Swedish technology to look at Earth, the moon, Mars and the Milky Way from space.

The fourth floor is home to the museum’s exhibits on music, which contain cutting-edge musical technology that lets visitors pretend to be DJs and analyze their voice patterns. Another exhibit on the fourth floor challenges visitors to build and fly paper helicopters. Guests can also program robots to shoot at a giant structure made up of a square, circle and triangle targets; if a visitor misses, the robot shoots the ball back.

Every three to six months, a new gallery will come to the fourth floor, Gruner said.

The lobby floor is a public space, Gruner added. By mid-year, a pedestrian bridge will connect the museum with the Connecticut Convention Center near the riverfront. The public area in the science center offers a cafeteria, gift shop and a 206-seat theater. In March, the members of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s woodwind section will perform in the theater, the museum’s dome and also its lobby to demonstrate acoustic principles.

The Connecticut Science Center is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission for adults is $17; for seniors, $15.50; for children ages 3 to 17, $14; and for children under two, there is no charge.

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