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Published: Monday, 2/11/2008

COSI staff shifts focus to outreach programs

BY KATE GIAMMARISE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
COSI's director of exhibits, Carl Nelson, reads the 'memory wall' only a little bit at a time because it saddens him. COSI's director of exhibits, Carl Nelson, reads the 'memory wall' only a little bit at a time because it saddens him.
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At COSI Toledo, the doors are shut. The lights are off. The hands-on science museum that once drew up to 250,000 visitors annually is officially closed to the public.

But inside, with space heaters to keep the offices warm, a small staff is working. Four full-time and two part-time employees are there, closing down the museum - while at the same time, working on continuing COSI's distance learning and outreach programs for local schools.

They have not given up hope that the facility can reopen. Some members of the staff, while staying on to work, have taken 5 percent to 8 percent pay cuts.

The museum's second attempt to pass a 0.167-mill levy failed in November, forcing it to close after operating for nearly 11 years. COSI's last day open to the public was Dec. 31, and more than 1,400 people came to enjoy the museum on its final day.

Had it been approved by voters, the levy would have produced $1.5 million annually for COSI, allowing it to keep operating. The levy would have cost $5.21 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.

"We have closed our doors to the public. We had to," said David Waterman, a local attorney who serves as chairman of the museum's board. "But what we are continuing is our long-distance learning and outreach educational programs."

A handful of museum staff members are still focusing on distance-learning programs, where an instructor can teleconference with students in a far-away classroom. They're also working on outreach programs for local schools, allowing students to learn about fossils, chemistry, physics, or - demonstrating the hands-on learning style COSI was known for - even providing lessons in a mobile inflatable planetarium.

"We get the kids really excited about science, but explain things along the way," said Carl Nelson, COSI's former director of exhibits and facilities who now works on outreach programs.

The high-wire bike is among the exhibits being prepared for a 'stored state' by COSI's remaining employees. The high-wire bike is among the exhibits being prepared for a 'stored state' by COSI's remaining employees.
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"We want the teachers to use us as a resource," said Lori Hauser, the museum's director of operations. The lessons are geared toward helping students learn about topics covered on Michigan and Ohio standardized tests, Ms. Hauser said.

Most of the programs were offered before the museum closed, but they've taken on a new significance.

"This [outreach] is good for the community and helps us retain some of our people who would be instrumental in opening the facility," Mr. Waterman said.

The museum does get paid for the outreach services, but with the expenses of paying staff and shutting down the facility, it's not clear how much longer the programs could continue. Mr. Waterman estimated they could run through at least the middle of this year.

"We don't have a reserve fund," Ms. Hauser said. "We have funds to secure the facility. But if we don't see the reservations [for outreach programs] coming in, this is something we won't be able to continue."

Birmingham Elementary School teacher Pauline Locascio, a longtime COSI supporter, said with buses for field trips increasingly hard to afford, "It's very important for [COSI] to come to the classroom. They bring an opportunity to show the students something over and above what we can show them."

The museum's programs provide hands-on exercises that get kids excited about science, Ms. Locascio said.

"They would see it in a real-world sense. They could see it, touch it, smell it, hear it," she said.

Through various programs, her second-grade students have learned about polymers, studied chemical reactions with a model volcano, and had lessons in physical science topics such as inertia and energy transfers through studying race cars.

Ms. Locascio, who wants to see COSI reopen, added, "I've said, 'If I win the lottery, their troubles are over. They are number one with me.'•"

Walking through the museum on a recent morning, most of the lights were off and there was a chill in the air. The exhibits are being prepared for a "stored state," Ms. Hauser said.

Black plastic bags covered some items, others were in the process of being taken apart, cleaned, or packed away. The windows facing the street have been covered up.

The exhibits and signs have been pulled out of the front entrance.

One item that's still intact: A "memory wall" filled with hundreds of yellow and blue pieces of paper where children scrawled their favorite memory of COSI in the days before its closing.

"I love COSI and I will miss it," says one note. "Save COSI," reads another.

Clad in a heavy sweater and scarf, Ms. Hauser becomes a bit choked up. Having worked at COSI for more than seven years, she said, she misses her former co-workers.

Before the closing, the museum employed 22 people full-time.

"I miss them terribly," she said. Some have found new jobs; others are still looking, she said.

"In a perfect world, I would love to see the science center reopen and have them come back. They loved what they did."

Mr. Waterman said reopening continues to be the museum's goal.

Exactly how or if that could happen is still not clear.

"It would require collaboration with organizations in the community," Mr. Waterman said. "That will unfold." Taxpayer support in the form of a levy may or may not be required, he said, and another levy attempt is one of many options being considered.

The November levy was voted down by a tally of 43,248 to 41,571. In 2006, it was defeated by 71,249 to 70,001 votes.

Since the failure of the levy, local business and political leaders have talked about trying to find a way to keep the museum open. However, no specific proposals have been presented to the county, said Tina Skeldon Wozniak, president of the Lucas County commissioners. Similarly, Brian Schwartz, spokesman for Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, said he knows of no new ideas to revive the science center.

One possibility that had been discussed is using the building as a science and math-focused school during weekdays and keeping the building as a museum on nights and weekends.

"That [idea] is still definitely in play," Mr. Waterman said.

However, Toledo Public Schools Superintendent John Foley said he hasn't had any formal discussions with anyone from COSI about the idea, though he did discuss it informally with a board member.

The district is always willing to look for partnerships that will benefit students, but any proposal to use the building as a school would have to seriously examine the cost for the district, Mr. Foley said.

If a funding solution was found immediately, Ms. Hauser estimated it would take 30 to 60 days to reopen the museum.

The longer the facility stays closed, however, the more difficult it will be to reopen.

For now, Ms. Hauser said, she's confident enough in the future of the museum's outreach programs that she's not looking for work.

Still, she says, she's not looking at the dire financial picture with rose-colored glasses.

"We know what we need to be able to do," she said.

Contact Kate Giammarise at:

kgiammarise@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.



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