On the one hand, the bomb. On the other hand, Sputnik. In the 1960s, science was sexy in America as never before. In 1969, San Francisco witnessed the birth of the Exploratorium, which reflected that new allure. The Exploratorium wasn't a museum of natural history as we know it, built on collections that interpret the natural history of the planet. Nor was it a science museum in the traditional sense, showcasing milestones in industry and technology. The Exploratorium was a new beast: a science center, designed not to impart a body of static information, but to stimulate discovery and scientific thinking by means of interactive installations.
"From the '70s to the '90s," says Emlyn Koster, president and CEO of the Liberty Science Center, "hundreds of science centers were built around the country, and they enjoyed great popularity. But to be popular is one thing. Now we're saying that such centers should also be useful. . . . Some centers show 'Harry Potter' films to diversify the audience. We want to diversify the audience, too, but not at the cost of our educational core. Our purpose is to bridge science and society. We know what dumbing down is, and we try to do the opposite."
As a trained scientist himself -- he holds a Ph.D. in geology -- Dr. Koster, 57, knows what is at stake. In one of his frequent opinion essays, he has written: "I am firmly of the view that the lack of connectivity between the traditional outlook of science centers and the science-based challenges and opportunities that confront the world must be remedied. Today, fueled by lifelong learning, science is the engine of possibility for the opportunities and challenges that our society and our environment face."
After a career in coal exploration in the Pacific Northwest and dinosaur fieldwork in China, Dr. Koster went on to head three science museums: Before joining the Liberty Science Center, he served at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology near Calgary (1986-91) and the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto (1991-96). A prolific contributor to the professional literature, he frequently cites the trail-blazing librarian and museum director John Cotton Dana (1856-1929), advocate of open stacks and founder of the forward-looking Newark Museum. "Learn what the community needs," Dana said, "and fit the museum to those needs."
A more recent forerunner is Stephen Weil (1928-2005), author of the book "Making Museums Matter." "Stephen Weil," Dr. Koster has written, "argued that the only dial on the performance dashboard that ultimately matters is usefulness." In journal essays such as "Maximizing the External Value of Museums" and "The Relevant Museum: A Reflection on Sustainability," he takes Dana's and Weil's ideas further. "Importantly," he has written, "an external orientation does not necessarily hinge on the results of public opinion surveys. Changes in the outlook of people and institutions, and new paradigms of accountability, have often been spurred by the articulation of a bold vision."
In July, the Liberty Science Center reopened after a $109 million expansion and renewal, receiving considerable media attention. The goal, as stated in the center's materials, has been to "show science and technology as they really exist, embedded into the facets of our lives." There are eight self-contained thematic exhibition areas, six of them new. Each takes its individual approach. Most address topics of vast complexity: skyscrapers, evolution, communications, infectious diseases, the ecology of the Hudson River basin, the quest for new energy sources. The others -- "I Explore" (for "young scientists aged 2-6") and "Wonder Why" (greatest hits from the LSC's previous offerings) -- are meant to pique curiosity and plant the seeds for scientific thinking. An area of traveling exhibitions opened with the old-fashioned yet timely show "Islamic Science Rediscovered" (continuing through Jan. 6). The complex also houses the nation's largest IMAX Dome Theater, with a screen 88 feet in diameter.
These, that is to say, are the areas open to the general public. The day I happened to visit, in early autumn, attendance was sparse, which on the face of it seemed a stroke of luck. No busloads of screaming kids to contend with, no queue for the cool activities. In the skyscraper module, a friend who had come with me saw that you could walk out on an I-beam jutting into thin air at a height of 18 feet. The attendants strapped me into a harness, attached me to the safety cord, opened the gate, and out I went, negotiating two right-angle turns before returning to the comfort zone of a solid floor.
Much, though, was disappointing. An astonishing proportion of the high-tech activities -- simulating the use of a crane, testing different architectural designs for wind resistance, etc. -- were out of order, or the people needed to run them were absent. Elsewhere, setups meant to demonstrate concepts like surface tension or turbulence seemed mildly engaging but pointless -- an impression confirmed by the few barely supervised kids who whizzed through, poked a finger in the bubble solution or gave the wheel a spin, shrugged, and moved on. Banner headlines in a communications module -- get your news from more than one source! -- struck me as Mickey Mouse.
But honestly, as I began to realize, the fault was mostly my own. If an overview of the center is all you want, go no further than the Web site (www.lsc.org1). To really experience what the center has to offer takes a lot more work. You need to want to engage. Mentally, at least, you have to roll up your sleeves.
And you'll need to come back. Schoolchildren who arrive to spend a day exploring a single module with well-prepared instructors -- and the center makes every effort to prepare them well -- will get infinitely more out of their trip than a curious but essentially passive tourist.
"The museum isn't built for the one-shot visit; it's a vehicle for activism," Dr. Koster said when we met after my self-guided tour. A sleek, portly, rather baronial presence, both a polished and a friendly speaker, he takes criticism in stride. "The job is to arouse curiosity, to move from there to interest, from there to insight, and from insight to action. This country is facing an educational dilemma. What do Americans need to know to stay at an international standard? A traditional approach would be for us to appeal to the state government for operating grants. Our strategy, which we think is much more successful, is to have the government contract with us for specific services.
"Schools have to teach to core-curriculum requirements. But in dealing with the districts, our offerings aren't one-size-fits-all. Over 10 years, we've deepened our relationships with the 31 economically defined poorest districts of New Jersey. They get to use our resources. We don't offer a list of activities, but a menu of options, which we package economically. We keep adding new options. And we focus on schools where the need is greatest."
Video-conferencing, as you might expect, plays a major role in the center's outreach. A module on symmetry in nature brings the camera right up to living creatures of the class of echinoidea (sea urchins, sand dollars), filling the screen. But that's not all. "The cameras are all wireless now," Dr. Koster says. "They can zoom in to the Hudson, they can link classrooms with the real environment outside the window. Great science is best demonstrated where it happens."
Most dramatic of all are programs the center has developed in partnership with New Jersey hospitals, allowing students in a dedicated theater in the Liberty Science Center to witness major medical procedures in real time. These programs are offered four times a week. Typically they run two hours.
"The kidney transplants are really powerful," Dr. Koster says. "They're socially powerful, because students don't just see the recipient. They also see the donor, and they see how one person can give life to another. They see the kidney on ice, going gray. Then they see it get reattached. When oxygenated blood is flowing again, the kidney turns pink again. It's like watching it literally coming back to life. Seeing open-heart surgery makes them rethink lifestyle choices like smoking. They actually get to talk to the surgeons, who ask them about diet, exercise and other risk factors, which helps them understand why the patient is on the table. There's also a facilitator here at the center, who hands around real equipment. The museums I grew up with weren't like this! The students sit mesmerized for two hours. When the center was closed, we moved these programs to the hospitals, and when a surgeon would emerge from the O.R. to converse with the students, they rose to their feet like for a rock star. Surgeons get calls later. Kids want to know if there are any jobs in their hospital."
To many students' surprise, the diversity in their classrooms has its counterpart in the diversity in the operating room. On one particularly memorable occasion, a class from Union City discovered that the Cuban-born Alejandro Rodriguez, who had just performed thoracic surgery, had attended their school. "Kids who never imagined they could be doctors start to think differently. 'If he could do it, I can do it.' That's impact."
OK, but what about all the stuff that wasn't working in the permanent installations? "Everybody works with computers, so everybody knows that they crash sometimes," Dr. Koster says. "We strive to have 95% of our participatory exhibits functioning at any given time. Our hardware and software gets a workout. People hit things. They walk off with things. Maintenance is never-ending. We're always working on it. Don't forget, this isn't a museum in the traditional sense. In glass boxes, things don't misbehave."