Teaching with adventure

Center hopes to draw parents and children to learn about health through interactivity.
Thursday, July 22, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:57 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

It’s not often that obesity and the dangers of smoking are dealt with through fun, hands-on exhibits, but that’s what the Health Adventure Center hopes to accomplish.

As the “science center with a health focus” gets closer to completion, ideas on how to get parents and children involved in learning about the body is the primary challenge for the center.

“How do we have exhibits that are fun and engaging, but also make (visitors) think about their choices?” says Ann Cohen, an MU nutrition specialist who is chairman of exhibits for the Health Adventure Center Board.

The center will be built in the former Federal Building on Cherry Street. The $5.1 million project is being funded through private donations, grants and, most recently, a $250,000 pledge from the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau’s attraction development fund.

“With the university and two colleges in town, it’s a perfect fit for a community that has an emphasis on education,” says Jim Ritter, chairman of the Health Adventure Center board of directors.

The center is expected to have more than 13,700 square feet of interactive exhibit galleries, including traveling exhibits that focus on specific health issues like obesity and fitness. None of the center’s exhibits have been decided upon yet.

Cohen has visited more than 50 science centers across the country to figure out what will attract the most visitors, as well as what to charge for admission and how many staff members the center will need.

Topics the center’s exhibits will focus on include healthy behaviors, the risks of bad habits such as smoking and “demonstrations of function,” such as how the muscular and skeletal systems function.

Similar science and health centers across the nation have helped the board predict admission prices, staffing needs and attendance.

“We’re basing this on the successful experiences of science centers elsewhere. There’s a lot of thinking that goes into it,” Cohen said. “The neat thing is there is a lot of sharing and people are interested in seeing exhibits that work for other centers.”

One place Cohen visited was the Health Adventure, a nonprofit science center in Asheville, N.C. Founded in 1968, the Health Adventure was one of the first health education centers of its kind in the country. They feature hands-on exhibits to teach kids and adults about how to be healthy. Exhibits also explore more complex issues such as SARS and trans-fat on a changing “hot topics” board.

Laura Chase, director of marketing for Health Adventure, said it is important to keep people interested with a variety of exhibits and styles of teaching. Some of the North Carolina exhibits include a crawl-through artery that shows plaque formation and a woman named “TAM,” or transparent anatomical mannequin. All of TAM’s organs are visible and she talks about the body through sound recordings.

Chase says that their center tries to incorporate music and drama into their teaching style and that they try to remember that laughter can help learning, too.

“We try very hard not to be a regular health center,” Chase says. “The humor factor is very important to us,” she says. “Children have a good sense of humor and adults appreciate a sense of humor as well.”

Ritter says Columbia’s health center will be different than other museums.

“The Health Adventure Center will be hands-on, unlike museums where you can’t touch anything,” Ritter says. “In the center, kids and parents will be able to touch and interact with the exhibits.”

Ritter hopes the center will increase the appeal of Columbia as a tourist destination. The target audience includes an 11-county area within a one-hour drive of Columbia, but Ritter anticipates visitors from neighboring states, such as Kansas, Illinois and Nebraska, as well. And as the only mid-Missouri attraction with a focus on health, the center should draw visitors from events like the Show-Me-State Games and MU football games, Ritter said.

“The center is projected to have 60,000 visitors each year, probably from all over the state and neighboring states,” Ritter says. “It will be good for the economy in Columbia and could be a great tourist draw in the future.”

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