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Commentary: Headwaters Science Center looks to future

Headwaters Science Center has some wonderful future plans, but it will take work to turn those plans into reality!

On March 6 HSC will celebrate the 15th anniversary of its formal opening in 1994, when 11 Science Carnival exhibits arrived from Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Since then, it has served more than 255,000 visitors in the center and almost 50,000 more through outreach.

Our present problem at HSC, and at most other non-profit organizations, is that foundation grants and local donations aren't keeping up with the need for funds. Grants and donations sometimes cover project costs, exhibits or programs, but any non-profit manager can tell you that operating costs such as heat, electricity, building maintenance and salaries are the substance of nightmares!

We're earning as much as we have in the past, and the staff is busier than ever, because their hours have been slightly reduced to match our 2009 budget.

HSC has belonged to the international Association for Science Technology Centers since our beginning, so our members have free access to 317 other science centers and museums, including five others in Minnesota, through a reciprocal admission program. Memberships also provide exhibit floor use during regular hours, and store and program discounts. It's a heck of a deal!

Many youngsters begin to make career plans by eighth grade, and science is the critical component of a great many careers. Science centers -- especially those like HSC without large endowments or other guaranteed income sources -- try hard to keep admission and membership prices low so everyone can enjoy their benefits. Science should be available to all people, and even very young children learn from things they find in science centers.

We have exciting plans for our future: a new director and a new building to replace the good old building that gave us such a great start. Our present building is too small, has no dedicated parking, and is not fully accessible to those with mobility problems. The new HSC will be built on city-owned land between Pamida and Beltrami County History Center. It will provide space for developing exhibit themes for people of all ages. We plan to build a "green" building that will demonstrate that, even in northern climates, en-ergy efficiency measures can be well utilized with a resul-tant decrease in energy costs.

Bemidji is HSC's primary service area, but as the only such center in a 200-mile path between Winnipeg and the Twin Cities, HSC really serves all of north-central and northwest Minnesota. In 2008, 126 groups of students from 76 different schools visited and HSC staff made many other presentations to schools and other groups during that same time period.

HSC aims to carry out the three main functions of a science center as ASTC lists them:

E Connecting people with science in the community and offering people of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to ask questions, discuss and explore.

E Providing firsthand experience and opportunities to develop ideas about the natural world.

E Encouraging curiosity. Interests awakened by science center experiences sometimes turn into a passion for science, and form the beginning of a lifetime devoted to teaching or research.

Everyone is welcome at science centers. In science centers, people can learn about all sorts of concepts -- so when they encounter them in other situations, they're more apt to understand what's going on. That's why many schools use HSC for field trips and auditorium programs, hands-on curriculum, science kits, and even training for teachers. Exhibits can awaken visitors to new interests and ideas. As Frank Oppenheimer, who founded San Francisco's Exploratorium, often said, "No one ever failed a museum."

What is science anyway? Science makes our lives longer and richer, frees us from ignorance and superstition, and expands our ability to dream. It requires careful gathering of knowledge about our universe and organizing and summarizing that knowledge into statements that can be tested.

Science depends upon scientists being willing to show their work to others for testing and replication; the: open exchange of data, procedures and materials; and the willingness to abandon or modify previously accepted conclusions when confronted with more complete or reliable evidence.

These principles allow for self-correction and are the reason for the credibility of science.

Laddie Elwell is director of the Headwaters Science Center.