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Future shock made child’s play

A riverside center to give a lift to downtown with hands-on learning, LEGOs, and ‘3D Sun’

By Christine Murphy
Globe Staff / July 26, 2009

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HARTFORD - The minute I caught sight of the wavy roof that seems to hover over the Connecticut Science Center like a silver magic carpet, I knew this was no ordinary museum.

My curiosity was piqued further upon entering the six-story, light-filled atrium with open-structured elevators and a wall of glass overlooking the Connecticut River.

And once we began exploring the 150 hands-on exhibits - including one in which you move a ball using brain waves - the deal was sealed.

For grown-ups, the awe of New England’s newest museum is the building itself.

The $165 million wonder designed by César Pelli and his New Haven-based firm, Pelli Clarke Pelli, is breathtaking, with stunning valley views and beautiful architectural details throughout.

The museum, which opened last month, also takes its eco-friendly mission seriously. About 95 percent of the steel used in the structure came from recycled cars. Sensors in the building detect the level of ambient light and automatically adjust the artificial light to save energy. And the utensils in the cafe are made of corn, making them both compostable and biodegradable.

But for children, the draw is the science.

After lunch in the small cafe - which incorporates fruits, cheeses, and other organic produce from farms in Connecticut and Massachusetts - we started on the sixth floor and worked our way down. It didn’t take long to realize that nearly all of the exhibits are entirely hands-on, actively encouraging visitors to get involved. At the Wet Lab, a “gallery scientist’’ helped us use a handheld microscope to examine tiny creepy crawlies (mayflies, water spiders, snails, and beetle larvae) alive in the weeds, roots, and water pulled that day from the riverbanks. The images were projected on larger screens for all to see.

At the weather station, my son Rob, 10, used a computer to create a script for a three-day forecast and recorded himself playing a TV meteorologist. Climate Change Theater shows a 20-minute film (narrated by an animated sheep) on global warming and alternative energy technology. One of the biggest attractions on the sixth floor isn’t an exhibit at all but a pop-out floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the river, the city, and beyond (similar to the window jutting out from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, but smaller). Watching a passing rainstorm pour down from that high up was a perfect complement to the floor’s focus on the earth sciences. And coming soon is a rooftop garden featuring plants and grasses native to New England.

“The view is incredible,’’ said Karen Nuremberg of Hamden, who was visiting with her grandchildren Valerie, 8, and Alexander, 5. “We happened to be here for a heck of a beautiful thunderstorm.’’

Many exhibits on the fifth floor are about making healthy choices and what part genetics plays in our health. Especially popular with boys, the helmet crash test - with a giant hammer that bashes into a dummy’s head - illustrates just how much a helmet can protect you from injury. A calmer exhibit, called Mind Ball, measures your brain waves. Strap on sensors and use your brain waves to move a ball across a track. The more relaxed you are, the more the ball will roll. Ryan, my 8-year-old, compared this to how Jedi knights harness the Force in “Star Wars.’’

Tucked almost as an afterthought behind the LEGO Imagination Zone (really just a table with LEGO blocks that was surprisingly popular) and a display highlighting Connecticut-based inventions (including the histories of Wiffle Ball, the Erector set, and Pratt & Whitney’s RL10 rocket engine) is Exploring Space, with several video exhibits. Use a joystick to explore the moon, touch a 2-million-year-old fragment of a Mars meteorite, and climb into the podlike mission simulator of the Galaxy Explorer to visit a black hole, the sun, or Saturn. The sheer variety of exhibits holds children’s attention, no matter their ages.

Cathy Ernst of Wethersfield called it a “learning museum.’’

“We’ll enjoy it more as they grow,’’ Ernst said of her daughter, Morgan, 2, and son, Jaime, 9 months. She and her husband, Jeff, were impressed by the museum’s high ceilings and spacious feel. “There’s a lot of people here, but it doesn’t feel crowded,’’ Ernst said.

It wasn’t until we got to the fourth floor, however, that I realized what sets the center apart from other science museums. This is where the grown-ups get into the act. The lively Forces in Motion exhibit explores the wind, magnets, and robotics and includes video-game-like downhill ski machines, mini magnetic levitation trains, and a sailing race game. At the Air Ball station, adults and children took turns blasting air at beach balls to make them “float’’ into a hoop. Without realizing it, we were learning about air flow and lift.

While nothing here is dumbed down for younger kids, the center’s exhibits prove that fun doesn’t have to be all that complicated. Sophia Kennedy, 8, who was visiting from Peoria, Ill., liked the heli-flyer launch pad best, tossing cut-up paper cups above chutes of air to watch them fly like helicopters in different directions.

Sophia’s mother, Khanchana Kennedy, also with Colin, 4, and Chloe, 3, in tow, called the museum “high quality, hands-on, and child-friendly.’’

Sight and Sound Experience, which is on the same floor, is all about music, motion, and light. Our favorites were Jam Session, a station where several people at once create synthesized music by turning a wheel, rotating a lever, or tapping at a light. Most of us couldn’t help but smile at what our symphony of noise had created. Another simple yet strangely soul-satisfying stop was Paint Box, a wall of light that “reacts’’ to your movement. Wave your arms across the wall, jump around, streak across, or do a few tai chi moves (like one older gentleman did) to create a pulsating trail of neon colors and lights.

“Just to watch the joy the kids have gotten out of it - we could come here all week because they love it,’’ said Nuremberg of her grandchildren.

On a more practical note, there are hand-sanitizer dispensers on every floor. “It’s clean,’’ said Nuremberg’s daughter, Jennifer Lee. “From a mom’s point of view, that’s important.’’

Included in the combination ticket is entry to the center’s first-floor 3D cinema, featuring a rotating program of two movies: “Dinosaurs Alive’’ and “3D Sun.’’ Getting to the 200-seat theater early is a good idea; it was so packed we had to split up. Luckily, there isn’t a bad seat in the house because of the stadium-style design. Shot in Mongolia, Nebraska, and New Mexico and narrated by Michael Douglas, “Dinosaurs Alive’’ contains scenes of dusty fossil digs and simulations of dueling dinosaurs, but is non-scary enough for younger viewers.

Wristbands allow you to leave the science center and come back the same day. The center’s website encourages visitors to wander around Hartford’s Constitution Plaza and Founders Bridge, and lists other local attractions, such as the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and places to eat and stay overnight.

Henry and Joyce Gutterman of Windsor bought a season pass with the idea of bringing their granddaughter, Hannah, 7, back for more visits.

The science center is bound to invigorate downtown Hartford, Henry Gutterman said. “I think it’ll be a plus to bring people here.’’

The whole of downtown, in its early stages of revitalization, will most certainly benefit from the center’s mere presence, never mind its civic-mindedness. But a day trip is barely enough to pack in everything it has to offer.

That doesn’t matter to the Ernst family, who are already thinking about their next visit. “We’ll definitely be back,’’ Cathy Ernst said.

Christine Murphy can be reached at cmurphy@globe.com.

If You Go

Connecticut Science Center
250 Columbus Blvd., Hartford
860-724-3623
www.ctsciencecenter.org
Combination ticket, including museum admission and movie, $19 adults, $17.50 seniors, $16 children. Season passes start at $35. Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in July and August, closed Mondays June to September.