Science That Excites: Adventure at the Liberty Science Center

Under its dynamic new director, Liberty Science Center goes for the gusto to engage body and mind.

Giant Germs: Meet microbes in the Infection Connection.
Courtesy of Liberty Science Center

Go under the instant-replay hood like a real NFL referee. (Don’t blow the call!) Balance on a skyscraper beam like a real ironworker. (Don’t look down!) Watch real surgeons transplant a kidney. (But not right after lunch.) Liberty Science Center isn’t content to tease your brain. It aims to engage your body and your emotions, too.

“Our mission,” says president and CEO Paul Hoffman, “is to excite learners of all ages about the power, promise and, most importantly, the pure fun of science and technology.”

In honor of New Jersey’s first Super Bowl arriving in February, the center is hosting the traveling exhibit “Gridiron Glory” through March 2. Aspiring players can test their passing accuracy, trying on and comparing vintage protective gear against today’s high-tech helmets and pads.

In “Skyscraper! Achievement & Impact,” a permanent exhibit, young visitors at least 4 feet tall can don a harness and try to inch across a steel beam 18 feet above the floor. They can also don a poncho and experience the 100-mph winds that skyscraper curtain walls have to withstand. School groups scheduling in advance can observe actual surgery as it happens; all visitors age 12 and up can slide behind the controls of the DaVinci Surgical Robot simulator and test their skill.

Liberty Science Center (LSC), a gleaming, futuristic structure overlooking placid Liberty State Park in Jersey City, boasts 300,000 square feet of interactive exhibits, demonstration stations and labs. It’s not exactly a newcomer—2013 is its 20th anniversary. But like science itself, it’s always evolving, and much is new since Hoffman took the helm in 2011.

“The character of the place has changed,” says Dr. William A. Tansey, chairman of the LSC board. “It has gotten a little younger in spirit. It has gotten a little more cluttered, which is probably a good thing.”

Hoffman, 57, is young in spirit himself. Though not an academic with extensive museum experience—the more traditional choice—he brought irresistible energy, range and vision to an institution staggering from slashed funding and shriveled donations. Hoffman graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in history and science. The day after graduation he joined the staff of Scientific American, where he wrote profiles of giants like molecular biologist Francis Crick and theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg. He eventually wrote 11 books exploring math and science; garnered fame for his puzzle column under the pseudonym Dr. Crypton; devised the clues for the 1984 book Treasure: In Search of the Golden Horse, which sparked a nationwide hunt; and devised the treasure map for the 1984 film Romancing the Stone, starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner.

Along the way, Hoffman served as president and editor in chief of Discover magazine, publisher and president of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, consultant for NASA and the National Science Foundation, and host of the PBS series Discovering the Great Minds of Science.

Given a mandate to reinvigorate Liberty Science Center, Hoffman removed exhibits that weren’t engaging guests (or were broken) and created space for new ones. He made a permanent home on the third floor for the Touch Tunnel, a pitch-dark, 80-foot crawl-through maze that had been mothballed during the two-year, $109 million expansion and renovation completed in 2007. “It didn’t have a space,” says Hoffman. “It would be out or it would be put away. I thought, That’s incredible. This is the center’s most iconic thing that people will remember.” The Touch Tunnel continues to be hands down (so to speak) LSC’s most popular exhibit.

Hoffman also added oversized scientific photographs to walls that had been bare and put together a team of educators—creatively referred to as pocket scientists—who now stroll the hallways sharing small, portable experiments with guests.

Upon taking the job, he discovered that half the visitors on weekends were children under age five. The center really didn’t have anything for them. So Hoffman cleared room on the fourth floor to house traveling exhibits: one space for younger kids, currently featuring “Bob the Builder—Project: Build It!,” a hands-on home repair and construction adventure; the other for older kids, currently “Gridiron Glory.” Last spring, attendance spiked when one space hosted an exhibit on the 2009 film Avatar while the other presented one on the Curious George children’s books.

“That’s driving people in record numbers,” Hoffman said at the time. “The other day, we had more people than we ever had since we first opened.”

Amid the push for freshness, permanent exhibits have not been neglected. In the “Infection Connection,” kids hunt microbes using actual lab equipment and learn how germs spread. “Our Hudson Home” features a 20-foot-long map of the Hudson River and tanks showcasing much of the sea life found in the river.
The center also houses three theaters, including the nation’s largest IMAX Dome, with a diameter of 88 feet and seating for 400. Among its changing programs have been vertigo-inducing documentaries on ancient sea creatures, polar bears, butterflies and great white sharks.

LSC’s founders, a group of professionals from various New Jersey companies, set out to make learning science fun. “They got into this idea of science education being a form of what they called ‘edutainment,’” says board chairman Tansey. A decade in the planning, the $68 million center opened with 200,000 square feet in 1993. The 2005-2007 renovation added 100,000 square feet, all-new exhibits and a 20,000-square-foot teaching center with classrooms and laboratories.

“It’s about stimulating people’s creativity,” says Hoffman. LSC supports the nationwide STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiative in elementary and secondary schools through its exhibits and special programs like the signature Live From Surgery, in which students video-conference with doctors and nurses during operations such as kidney transplants and knee replacements.

“What we try to do is create experiences that might get somebody to actually go into the sciences,” Hoffman says. “There’s a huge gap between the skills that private industry is looking for and the skills that students coming out of high school and college have right now.” Indeed, it has been estimated that, by 2014, there will be about 2 million jobs in science and technology that American workers will not be qualified to fill. For Hoffman, science centers can play a critical role in closing that gap.

To do so, LSC has kept its promise to serve New Jersey students, particularly those from poorer districts. Last year, it delivered science programs to 61,000 underprivileged kids by sending science educators to their schools, video-conferencing from the center, or by helping them visit the center using coupons. To support such programs, the center receives a portion of its funding from the state—approximately $5 million toward its $19 million annual budget. The rest must be raised from corporate and private donations, memberships, admissions and tickets for IMAX films and other programs.

To modernize its fundraising, Hoffman has pushed the center to expand its use of social media. In January, LSC ran an online crowd-funding campaign that raised $20,000, enabling it to acquire from another facility two endangered, cotton-top tamarin monkeys for its live animal exhibit, “Eat or Be Eaten.”
“Anybody could contribute to this,” Hoffman says. “A kid could contribute $5. The only way we can do something is if we can raise money for it.”

Involving New Jersey science and technology companies is another priority for the CEO. He recently convinced Alcatel Lucent’s Bell Labs, headquartered in Murray Hill, to use LSC as a living lab. Researcher Larry O’Gorman is developing video cameras that can recognize and respond to whatever they are capturing in real time. In order for the cameras to develop computer algorithms that could help them understand when to, say, call police in case of an emergency, they need to watch lots of people doing lots of things. Buzzing with activity, LSC is the ideal laboratory. “The flow in that place is wonderfully diverse,” says O’Gorman. But the cameras installed at LSC won’t be spying on guests. Instead, guests are invited to interact with the cameras through a game, PixelPalooza, which was developed in collaboration with LSC’s exhibition team and the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. Visitors move, jump and wave in front of a huge screen to reveal a hidden picture. “This isn’t just a science center exhibition,” says Hoffman. “This is actually real research.”

As for traveling exhibits, LSC doesn’t just book them from elsewhere. It is now putting finishing touches on one of its first-ever, homemade traveling exhibits—”Beyond the Rubik’s Cube,” to honor the puzzle’s 40th anniversary. “It’s about Rubik’s Cube and all the things it’s led to and inspired people to do,” Hoffman says. Partners include Google as well as puzzle inventor Erno Rubik. The exhibit is scheduled to open at LSC in April 2014 and run through the end of the year, before embarking on a seven-year tour of science centers and museums around the world.

“I want this to be a playful and creative place,” Hoffman says. “That’s what gets people excited. That’s what we can do.”

222 Jersey City Boulevard; 201-200-1000; lsc.org; hours: Monday, closed; Tuesday through Friday, 9 am–4 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 9 am–5:30 pm; kids (2 to 12) $14.75, adults (13 and up) $19.75, seniors (62 and up) $16.75.

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