Omniplex Helps Address Critical Need for Science Education

Article excerpt

Our entire economy hinges on our ability to get little kids to like science class. That makes Omniplex not just a fun place for a field trip, but a valuable tool for improving the economy. And the fact that the science museum hasn't changed much over the last quarter century may turn out to be a good thing.

A big change is coming - not just at the Omniplex, but nationwide, said Max Ary, president of the Kirkpatrick Science and Air Space Museum at Omniplex.

The importance of science is that it leads to the fields of engineering and technology, which is the base of all small business, which is the base of the whole economic system, said Ary. Other places, like Japan, totally understand the importance of teaching science. But we've lost that.

Though the United States led the world in science education during the 1960s, today America's students rank 25th in the world in scientific aptitude, Ary said. A big part of the problem is that very little science is taught in elementary schools - the crucial age at which to introduce the subject.

Studies show that if a child is not turned on to science by the fifth grade, you've usually lost them, said Ary. Science museums are going to have to find new ways to get the attention of the potential scientists of tomorrow, he noted.

During the early 1990s, three times as many people attended museums each year than attended all professional sporting events combined, Ary said. But over the last few years, attendance has decreased by 20 percent, causing a number of science museums to close their doors.

There has been a change in public perception after 9-11, Ary said. People expect something different out of museums than they used to. Something has changed, and we're desperately trying to find out what that is.

Not much money has been spent on (Omniplex) in the last 25 years, but a major change is about to occur in the museum field, and we're in the perfect position - both in timing and location - to be on the front edge of that change, to lead the nation.

Around the same time the Omniplex was being built, Ary was helping to found the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchison, Kan. Ary spent 27 years as president and CEO of the Cosmosphere, the longest tenure of any director of a major museum in the United States.

During that time, Ary became known as one of the nation's foremost experts on the history of space exploration. He directed the assembly of one of the largest and most significant collections of American and Russian space artifacts in existence. Ary is credited with initiating and overseeing virtually every major space artifact restoration program ever conducted, as served as technical consultant on numerous Hollywood films, including the Academy Award- winning Apollo 13 and the Emmy Award-winning television series From the Earth to the Moon.

Almost my entire professional life was spent there, said Ary. I thought I would retire there. It was my love, a first-class (facility). It took something really special to pull me away from there.

Omniplex' management pursued him, he said, and the science museum provided challenges Ary was ready to tackle. (Charles Shilling, who served as executive director of Omniplex from 1998-2001, also used to head the Kansas Cosmosphere from 1991 to 1992). …