When the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford re-opens on Monday after a two-week renovation, visitors won't recognize the cavernous atrium lobby.
A 20-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex will leap out of the ticket booth. A sperm whale will breach by the stairwell. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter will fly overhead and a Mercury-Redstone rocket ship will point to the sky. A volcano will erupt on one wall. A tornado will wreak havoc on another. Sea creatures will swim past riders on the escalator.
The atrium has become "Science Alley," with embellishments that hint at exhibits inside the museum or coming soon. The $3.2 million transformation is the first in a series of changes at the museum called "Science Forward," a $15 million initiative funded primarily by a $10 million state contribution as well as grants and private donations.
Over the next three years various phases will make their debuts, including the opening of a tropical butterfly conservatory and a DNA and genomic sciences gallery, the expansion of the engineering lab as well as a display on the human impact on the Earth.
Richard Thomas, director of exhibit development and design, said "Science Alley" is the most significant transformation at the museum since it opened in 2009. "Before, this room had just a yellow wall," Thomas said of the redesigned atrium, which is 146 feet high, 44 feet wide and 180 feet long. "This always has been an underused space."
Connecticut Science Center President and CEO Matt Fleury said the elements in "Science Forward" and "Science Alley" were chosen to enhance what schools in the state are teaching in their STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — curricula, and to focus on the state's future workforce requirements at places such at UTC, Jackson Labs, Sikorsky and others.
Cheryl Tokarski, vice president of programs, who oversees the museum's educational outreach, said the enhancements, and the upcoming new exhibits and programs that they illustrate, will conform to the NextGen science standards that were adopted by Connecticut in November 2015. "NextGen is phenomena-based. Rather than just learn facts, it will be based on kids learning about what they have experienced, to explain the phenomena that they see happening ... why a volcano erupts, what creates the chaos of a tornado," Tokarski said.
"The way science used to be taught, kids memorized facts, how chemistry happens, how this or that takes place," she said. "The new standards help kids grow up to be problem solvers. It's not just knowing what someone else told them. They learn to figure out why things happen."
Dublin, Ohio-based exhibit design firm ROTO created the pieces in "Science Alley," including murals, LED features including a depiction of rainfall and that spewing volcano.
Thomas called the style of the exhibit's sculptures "a depiction of reality into abstraction," and said they were designed to conform to the Science Alley theme, "See the Unseen." This includes the bones of the whale and the dinosaur, the inner workings of a helicopter, the fuel tanks of the rocket, the insides of an engine, the whoosh of a tornado.
The wooden sculptures were created in gray and orange. The bright shade of orange was chosen "to show the elements that science have revealed to us," said Matt Umland of ROTO.
The whale is 30 feet long, the size of an adult female sperm whale, and is designed to emphasize the hand bones inside her flippers, which point to an evolutionary history with humans. The rocket is the same size as the Freedom 7, manned by astronaut Alan Shepard in 1961. The 29-foot-tall tornado incorporates bits and pieces of mangled debris retrieved from a home destroyed in the 2011 tornado that swept through Springfield, Mass.: a dog's dish, a swing, a garbage can, a shovel.
Visitors who just want to check out the "Science Alley" enhancements, but go no further into the science center, don't have to pay an admission price.
The butterfly conservatory is scheduled to open in the summer. The Engineering Lab is scheduled to launch in mid-2018. The Planet Earth installation is set to debut in mid-2019 and a DNA/Genomics gallery can be seen in mid-2020.
John Bordeaux, the center's vice president for advancement said sponsors of the renovation are United Technologies, Travelers Insurance, Roger and Sondra Beit of Glastonbury and Mark and Luanne Paley of West Hartford.
THE CONNECTICUT SCIENCE CENTER is at 250 Columbus Blvd. in Hartford. ctsciencecenter.org.