Science for Big Kids
My memory of the old Liberty Science Center is dark: the touch tunnel. A carpeted tube through which one navigated relying on senses other than sight. (I also remember the bobbing greenish glow of the watch of the person in front of me. I suppose a stickler might say that we cheated.) Years of many small knees crawling and many small hands tugging left the Science Center a bit ragged. This week, after two years of construction, the Center will reopen, on time and on budget.
Gone is the beloved touch tunnel, but perhaps that’s for the best. The updated Science Center — still in Jersey City — is shiny, new, and high-tech, and does not condescend to its visitors. There are still covertly educational toys for the very young, but they’ve pulled the common denominator up. Instead of sampling the dynamic world of, say, static electricity (which can be done from the privacy of one’s linen closet) one can construct a small building and test its resilience on an earthquake simulator. I watched a teacher’s building crumble at the first tremor. What kid wouldn’t enjoy that?
The new Center also tries to make science feel accessible, even local. Tanks of fish include flat little sharks from the harbor. The skyscraper exhibit brings the New York City skyline, visible out a nearby window, into a global context. To its credit, the Center does not shy away from the things we wish were less real world. The skyscraper exhibit holds two pieces of the World Trade Center; one, an I-beam mangled by the heat and pressure into a twisted U.
America is falling behind in the global competition to produce and educate scientists. The Liberty Science Center hopes that the chance to interact with real scientists and their work might awaken new enthusiasm in children who might otherwise be napping in the back of their chemistry classrooms. So they offer the opportunity to go out on the water with an oceanographer or chat — via video camera — with a surgical team while watching them operate. ("Excuse me, is that a kidney in your hand? Should we continue this conversation later?") I was that kid dozing in chemistry class. And at the Science Center I had fun.