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Published: 4/22/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

COMMENTARY

Keep the science, fun coming at Imagination Station

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

I watched flames shoot from my right hand. I stood in Katrina-force winds. I discovered how much longer I can expect to live.

If a staid old guy like me can have that much fun, and learn that much, during a visit to Imagination Station, think of the delights that await your family -- and what you would miss if the science center along Toledo's riverfront weren't there.

Imagination Station is among those local treasures that many larger cities would love to have. We'll find out how much our community values the nonprofit center when it seeks a property tax renewal this November.

The tax costs the owner of a $100,000 home in Lucas County just 10 cents a week. For all that Imagination Station contributes to this region, in education and entertainment, it's hard to think of a better bargain.

While most of the center's 200,000-plus annual visitors are young people, it also offers plenty of learning opportunities for adults. All that's missing is the agonizing boredom I recall from my school days, when science was something you endured rather than enjoyed.

"Our mission is to inspire kids about science," Lori Hauser, Imagination Station's executive director, told me as we dodged excited students, from preschool through high school, during my visit last week. "Their eyes light up when they come in."

The center's 250 interactive exhibits run the scientific gamut: engineering, energy, environment, health, agriculture, brain science. Among the most popular exhibits is a chamber that simulates hurricane conditions. Ordinarily, its wind speed tops out at 94 miles an hour.

But when I stepped inside the booth, my hosts were thoughtful enough to turn a special key to crank the exhibit up to 157 mph -- the equivalent of a Category 5 storm. I fought to keep my eyes open and looked for a tree to lash myself to.

As I emerged shakily from the chamber, Toledo attorney David Waterman, the chairman of Imagination Station's board, sympathized. "That's how I lost my hair," he said.

The display of my guinea-pig capacity caused Mr. Waterman to ask his colleagues: "Where's the bed of nails?" It's a real demonstration at the center, but I managed to escape it.

Still, I wasn't done. To illustrate properties of gases, Carl Nelson, Imagination Station's exhibits director and chief scientist, invited me to plunge my hand into a beaker and scoop up a handful of methane bubbles. Which he then set on fire, spectacularly. I kept my composure and my skin.

This month, the center opened a permanent exhibition, sponsored by ProMedica, called "Eat It Up." It aims to help young -- and not-so-young -- people make better choices about diet, exercise, and lifestyle. Mr. Nelson summarized the message: "It's OK to be active."

The exhibition includes the world's coolest treadmill, called "Wheel of Fire." A heart-rate monitor is disguised as a whack-a-mole-style game. A display based on the popular Web site "Smash Your Food" combines satisfyingly gross images of a bacon cheeseburger, an order of fries, and a milkshake getting squashed with unsettling statistics about the amount of sugar, salt, and fat they contain.

Another game with impressive tabletop graphics calculates your longevity based on 11 variables. A related exhibit ages your photograph according to information you provide about how you live. I evidently don't have anything to worry about right away, but I'll still pay my insurance premium this month.

Imagination Station attracts substantial corporate support and private memberships. The Blade and Buckeye CableSystem sponsor permanent exhibitions at the center. An agricultural exhibit sponsored by The Andersons, "Grow U," opens next month.

BP and First Solar sponsor energy-themed exhibits. Companies such as Mercy and Taylor Automotive help bankroll the center's adopt-a-school program, which provides free field trips for thousands of students. The Science Society raises money from private donors.

But like 90 percent of other science centers across the country, Imagination Station also must rely on public support. That's why this year's millage vote -- which is likely to appear on the same ballot as tax requests for Toledo Public Schools and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library -- is crucial. The tax raises $1.3 million a year, an amount that represents almost half of the science center's operating expenses.

"I don't think we could operate without that levy," Mr. Waterman said. "We're not going to take this lightly -- we're going to run a spirited campaign."

The science center, called COSI Toledo when it opened in 1997, struggled through tough times and two failed levy votes before it was forced to close in 2007. Renamed Imagination Station, the center reopened in 2009, a year after voters approved the current operating millage.

Since then, nearly a half-million people have visited the center. Its array of traveling and permanent exhibits continues to grow, even though the center has cut costs and has reduced staffing by more than half from COSI days. In return for the local tax, the center admits Lucas County youths for free on Saturdays.

"This place is extremely efficient, and we've got a great staff," said Dan Frick, a retired accounting executive who volunteers as Imagination Station's chief financial officer. "The kids can't help but learn, even though it's fun."

Since the current Imagination Station levy doesn't expire until next year, the center would have time to regroup if voters reject its tax request in November. But it shouldn't come to that.

Ms. Hauser cites letters from young people who say their exposure to Imagination Station has caused them to aspire to become scientists, teachers, and engineers. A student named Samantha said her visit helped her "play, study, and learn new things ... I love the Imagination Station."

That kind of investment in the next generation surely is worth at least a dime a week.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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