Ohio science center looks at its 50-year experiment

Nonprofit center on science and industry marks half century of educating, entertaining public


COLUMBUS — When the reborn Memorial Hall opened as the Center for Science and Industry in 1964, a Columbus advertising executive’s dream had come to pass at last.

Sandy Hallock’s idea, inspired by a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, took six years to pull off.

It required the help of area business leaders and the Franklin County Historical Society, as well as $502,000 in county funding to renovate the hall in downtown Columbus.

Five decades and one move later, the nonprofit center is viewed as a standout among its peers.

“COSI is one of our leading institutions, and not just in the United States,” said Anthony Rock, president and CEO of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, a nonprofit organization encompassing nearly 600 centers and museums in more than 40 countries.

“COSI is at the top in serving its community and using science very effectively in delivering its message.”

The center moved in late 1999 to the site of an old high school, less than a mile from its original home, which is now county offices. And it is getting a head start on celebrating its March 29 milestone, with the recent opening of an exhibit called “50 Years of COSI.”

COSI had a center in downtown Toledo that closed in 2007 after more than 10 years in operation. The science museum reopened as the Imagination Station in 2009.

Still, much of COSI’s success is rooted in its ability to make science and industry accessible, engaging, and entertaining.

“COSI is in the top tier of science centers nationwide in terms of creativity, content, education, inspiration and the spirit and talent that the team brings to every guest every day,” said Kathryn Sullivan, a former astronaut who brought “star power” to COSI as its leader from 1996 to 2006.

“The core of its DNA is solid science — based on solid educational research and design — in a wrapper that seems to just be fun.”

Using a range of exhibits, the center has worked throughout its history to make science education cool.

For example, visitors might recall the original Foucault Pendulum, modeled after an 1851 experiment by the French scientist Jean Foucault, proving that Earth rotates.

Or maybe it’s the simulated Coal Mine, with its inky black walls and real mining equipment, which rings a bell.

The traveling exhibit “Titanic” drew a record 226,000 visitors during its six-month run in 2005. Five years later, it returned.

“Science centers like COSI are special places for opening the imagination of kids and adults to the scientific laws that make our universe work,” said John Beacom, an Ohio State University professor of physics and astronomy, whose teenage daughter has visited the center since she was 3.

Younger people are drawn to the hands-on atmosphere, with 300-plus interactive options spread throughout themed areas such as Gadgets, Life, Progress, and Space.

“COSI does a very good job of taking something abstract and simplifying it down, or taking something very simple from the household and using that to explain a high-level concept,” said David Greer, an information-technology manager and a COSI volunteer, who visited the center while in high school and returned often with his daughter, Jessica.

Those visits influenced 18-year-old Ms. Greer, now a freshman pursuing chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

“COSI showed me that discovering things is really fun and that it’s OK to be super-nerdy and study engineering,” she said.

But balancing entertainment and education isn’t necessarily easy.

“That’s a valid tension in the field,” said David Chesebrough, COSI’s president and chief executive office since 2006. “We have to make sure that what we bring in meets our mission and fulfills our business model.

“If we have to sacrifice one [goal] for the other, we focus on education.”

The center’s first 50 years weren’t without setbacks.

The most difficult period began after the move from the 116,000-square-foot Memorial Hall site to the 320,000-square-foot building incorporating much of the former high school on the west bank of the Scioto River.

The $125 million site was funded the city of Columbus, the state, and private donors, and the expansion presented challenges.

Although a record 1 million people visited the center in 2000, the first full year on the riverfront, visitors talked of missing the bustling intimacy of the old venue and some exhibits that weren’t kept. Attendance fell.

That meant less earned income, a problem for a center funded largely through general admissions, memberships, traveling-exhibit surcharges, and workshops. And the much-larger facility cost more to heat, staff, and fill.

COSI turned in 2004 to the county for help, but voters squashed a property tax levy that would have raised $12.4 million yearly to fund the center.

COSI slashed its budget — to about $11 million a year, down from a peak of $20 million — with moves that included laying off employees, shuttering its southern wing, and curbing hours.

The most-effective fix was to partner with science and industry, and COSI integrated into its exhibits and sights the daily activities of scientists and others in industrial and technical fields.

For 2012-13, COSI reported a balanced budget of $17 million, with 75 percent of that covered by earned income. And about 658,000 people visited in 2012-13, up from 627,800 the previous fiscal year.