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David Chesebrough Discusses the Future of COSI

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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It seems like only yesterday, but COSI, the Center of Science and Industry has spent a full decade in their current location on Broad Street in Franklinton. Many people have fond memories of the original location while many more have spent the past ten years making new memories in the new building. More recently, COSI has begun growing in new directions which include the addition of new industry-partnership exhibits to showcase cutting edge technology, new programming geared more for teenagers and adults, and finding other ways to leverage their leadership position to help positively shape the future of our city.

We recently sat down with COSI President & CEO David Chesebrough to discuss the past, present and future of this Columbus institution.

Walker Evans: Around 75% of the readership of Columbus Underground falls into the 22-40 year old age range. How does this demographic fit at COSI?

David Chesebrough: In the past we marketed ourselves so well as a family destination that we’ve gotten “boxed-in” in a lot of people’s minds as that venue. Many people think that they can only come to COSI when their kids are between two and twelve and that’s it.

That’s never been the reality though. We have a significant number of adults and couples who come in. We’ve strategically looked at that. I have what I call the “cradle to career continuum” that I want the staff thinking about. Ideally, in my mind, you’re coming with a child, he’s two, he comes to COSI, and you do your family thing. When he gets to about age 12, that’s when we switch over, and we’ve created a whole array of teen programs. You’ll start to see more and more young people on the floor. So, we’re hanging on to them in their teen years. We’re now starting to build more and more partnerships with OSU and young professional groups, so what we’d like to see is when your kid is 18 and going to OSU, maybe he’s up there working in the labs because he’s volunteered and he’s interested in research because we’ve inspired him through his years at COSI.

We’re also having more and more adult events. We just had the “Science of Sweet” event recently. So we’re pulling in 150 to 300 people for these events. We also recently hosted OSU for an evening. So between 5 and 11pm, we had 6,000 people – OSU students, spouses, faculty, families, just surge through the place. This is exploratory for us, because it was not a focus area before. We’re seeing with that demographic you’re talking about, more things that are being identified as above and beyond just kids’ activities.

When we host for example, Byrd Polar, it’s just as cool for a 25 year old to come down and talk to someone whose been up in glaciers and down in Antarctica and be able to touch an ice core sample. Or talk to someone at Miami University who takes a frog that gets completely frozen solid and then comes back to life in the spring.

So those are interesting for kids, but they’re also just as interesting for adults. We’re really trying to balance out and have people see COSI as a continuum of experiences. It’s just that you might use COSI a little bit differently each time.

And so, one of the things we’re doing is looking as when your kids gets older, say 5 or 6, making it easier to transition to other spots. The upcoming Titanic exhibit is a perfect example. That’s really a great exhibit for adults. Young adults, teens, young professionals or older folks because it’s one of those generational touch points. Each generation has its certain touch point; whether it’s the older generation and remembering back the stories of the incident, to the generation that watched the movie over and over again, to the generation who’s going to hear about the next scientific exhibition as they come up on the 100th anniversary of that tragedy. So we’re trying to find more of a balance to these things.

WE: Just to share a quick anecdote… when my wife and I first started dating, we visited COSI from time to time as a date spot. Not the first thing to come to mind for many people, but a great place for twenty-somethings to go walk around and hang out.

DC: Yeah. You can catch a movie, or go down to the cafe, which recently had a half-million dollar remodel to take it from looking like a school cafeteria to a cafe that can be upscaled in the evenings. We’ve hosted the CMCpm young professionals group in there. It can be roped off, have a bar set up and used as a more intimate space. We’re looking very creatively at the building to allow us to be a little more multi-use.

WE: There’s been some buzz recently about the planetarium potentially re-opening. Are there any updates on that project?

DC: I recently asked board member, “So what got you interested in COSI?” Their answer was, “Well, if you grew up in Columbus, you grew up at COSI.” We had that long heritage, and then we went into the new building, and we got a little ahead of ourselves on a building basis. Most buildings you have to grow into. So, when we lost the levy, part of it was just due the shear overhead of the building. So that’s when we shut off a lot of the parts of the building. After that is when I came in as the new President. We’re now trying to remake ourselves from being a stand-alone science center, where we only need our footprint for our family activities and our events, to a center of science, where we’re hosting public forums. We’re having broader audiences by putting first-of-its-kind TV stations and research labs into a science center. We’re strategically looking at how we can bring every square foot of the investment that the community made back online. These are challenging economic times, so nothing can come back online unless it has a revenue source or potential that’s going to meet or exceed its expenses.

A couple of spaces are in that group including the Adventure Exhibit and the Planetarium. We’re balancing bringing new things on like the labs, and taking a look at something like the Planetarium. Planetariums don’t make money in any science center. So then you have to talk about how much do they add to the experience. And how much can I afford to underwrite them, or in our case, what we’re trying to do is… if we can really scale up the potential with software and the like, does it offer new opportunities? Is there interest in renting the space, or using it for presentations… so that we can almost subsidize the planetarium off of other functions.

That’s a long way of leading into, “I don’t know when the Planetarium will reopen.” We had about 60 people from universities and businesses and community people and donors, who came to take a look at this with us said, “that idea looks interesting!” But no one called up the next day and said that they were willing to underwrite the million or so that it would take to do that. So we will continue to explore these things.

Sometimes it’s all about planting the seed. The research labs that have opened up are just now hitting stride. I wrote a blog about it recently with a couple of photos I had of it. They’ve got 50 undergraduate and graduate students now volunteering or wanting to study down there. Partly because its so cool and so different. It gives us a workforce that they can use and we can use to make that place more and more engaging. I think the idea of the research labs was floated to me in the first six months that I was here, nearly four years ago, so it takes time.

So, we’re still in the growing into the next phase of the building. So overall, those are the sorts of conversations we’re having internally right now.

WE: One criticism that I hear all of the time is that many people miss the old COSI. I’m sure you hear that quite a bit yourself. Do you have a standard response to that sort of remark?

DC: Yes. I’ve gotten pretty experienced with that. One response is that I tell people that I also knew the old COSI quite well. I actually was introduced to COSI in 1987 when I joined the science center field. It was one of the three meccas that I was sent to to find out more about this new thing called the Science Center Field. I had been trained as an engineer and been a teacher and was project managing the building of what is now the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh. I actually interviewed for a VP position at COSI while we were building Carnegie. So my point is, I’ve got the reference of what the old COSI looked like. I saw it both as a user and as a visitor with my own kids, and I also saw it as a professional.

What you do if you have a venerable institution like that, is you have generations that have their memories attached to physical signature points. Whether its the Jeffrey Coal Mine, or the Pendulum, or the Planetarium. And so when you remove those anchor points, people sometimes feel a little bit of loss and that sometimes leads to even anger. I mean, some people really vent at me about out. One thing we probably could have done better as an organization, was respected the historical icons and figured out how can we help keep that anchor. The flip side of this, is that our own research team is doing constant evaluations and surveys. What we find is that there is a whole new generation now where all they know is the new COSI and they think it’s great!

So as we continue to look at how we accelerate the changes and refresh things now, we’re trying to make sure we understand what the icons in peoples’ memory are for this generation with this building. I can’t give you back the old building, but what we can do is highlight those anchor points. The pendulum got brought back out right in the middle and made dominant. The science spectrum tree, which was outside the old COSI, was brought back out front and highlighted. We’re trying to do what we can to recapture the sense of the old experience for what is reasonable for us to do… and other parts I’ll just have to take a beating on and just say, I’m sorry, that happens with everything. You’ll always have people who value their personal anchoring in some physical structure.

WE: A few people on CU mentioned that some of the exhibits feel almost too “cartoon-like”. Kids have so many things these days to stimulate them… is there a balancing act between something that looks fun to draw their interest in, and making sure the learning component is still front and center?

DC: Right. Absolutely. It’s all a juggling act. The legacy of how the team at the time was trying to push the science center field out farther and the way they perceived that push was to have the themed experiences. We call them “immersion experiences”. We really got into that with Ocean area, or Adventure area. I think that kind of area aligns with what kids are doing these days, the multiple layers are pretty consistent with what people’s actual experiences are like. In that case, it makes sense. In other cases, I think it didn’t pan out as well as we thought it might.

So that’s why we’re asking ourselves, “What is it that we can still add that differentiates us”. Because that’s what you’re really getting at, to some degree. We has someone from the founding family of Intel come through COSI recently and his advice was “I’d take out every flat screen that you have in this place.” His point was that we’ve got the potential and the power of real science here. If you just put a screen in front of a kid, how is that different from a screen in front of a kid at home? So that’s why you’re seeing more and more of things like putting an actual working PBS station in COSI, so you can see and play with the technology and see what’s done in there. That’s why we’ve put in research labs… so you can observe and watch, but you can also talk to the researchers. You can see them actually doing research in action. So there’s a thing I call the “Power of Real”. We’re trying to bring real science out there and not cloak it necessarily in sugar wrapping. Otherwise, if we go too far, we do run the risk of not being differentiated.

But where else are you going to be able to strap yourself onto a unicycle and ride out above three stories? Those are the kinds of things that we’ve got to make sure you get a part of the significant experience of COSI that you can’t get somewhere else. And that’s the challenge we have. That’s the balancing act.

WE: One of the other balancing acts that was brought up recently on CU is that COSI is the Center for Science and Industry. The person who brought it up thought the science side was handled well, but doesn’t see as many industry-related exhibits as maybe there used to be. Do you think the industry side is lacking? Or are there opportunities there?

DC: It’s a very valid observation. Actually, our board chair from Battelle, Jeffrey Wadsworth said we’re going to put the “I” back in COSI. We have a whole new branding and logo where we’re bringing the Center of Science and Industry back out. Most people don’t know what COSI stands for. I didn’t know what COSI stood for when I interviewed! [Laughs]

One new area, the Innovation Showcase, is located straight back past the atrium. We took that whole back hallway which was just lockers, and we’re experimenting with how to bring stories out. If you walk down that hallway, you see stories from TechColumbus, Battelle, OSU, and that’s the first experiment for us to see, “can we effectively bring out the local story.” We put a group of advisers together just for this purpose and what they told us was, “How are you going to change at the speed of science and the speed of innovation?” You can’t do that by building exhibits because they take forever to design and build. By the time you get them out there, they’re outdated. They cost too much to change immediately. So we have a group of leading science centers that are all sharing ideas on how you can show breakthrough science and local innovation. We’ve all been experimenting with our own different ways, and the Innovation Showcase is ours.

So what you’re going to see in the next 12 months is our Innovation Showcase taking on the whole Energy and Environment Industry that’s here in Central Ohio. We’ve got Battelle, which manages every 2 out of 3 federal dollars that’s going into energy research… we’ve got a fuel cell industry, we’ve got First Solar, the largest solar cell maker up in Toledo. We’re trying to figure out how to bring more of those local industries in.

The other way that we’re bringing innovation and industry back to COSI is by leveraging the relationships that we’re building with those industries and innovators and having special theme days. It’s a lot easier for us to just give someone a space, and let them bring their stuff in and set it up. Over the holidays, AEP put up their special tent with all of their GE equipment and smart appliances. So there you had a smart grid; some of the components being built right here in Central Ohio. AEP is putting their smart grid in some residences, and GE is putting in their smart appliances, so you start to get this whole system. We’re trying to see if we can get more and more companies to work with us on a more frequent basis. Abbott Labs is looking at doing a partnership with us. Time Warner is joining us now. We’re trying to not show the coal mine of yesterday… we’re trying to show the industries of today and tomorrow. I want the kids of today growing up and talking to the young professionals who are all excited about being electrical engineers. Or working on solar cells, or a chemical engineer working on fuel cells. So we’re trying to make that connection and make it work as a system rather than just a stand alone experience.

WE: This next question is verbatim from the person who asked it on Columbus Underground: “The children of the sixties were inspired by the space race to be engineers and scientists; the children of the eighties were inspired by advancements in computers to become programmers; what do you think kids today are being inspired about?”

DC: I think it’s the green movement. I think it is energy and environment. We’ve done surveys and public forums at COSI that were kind of activity based and at the very top by a significant number was the public’s interest of going to COSI and learning about the environment. I’m not necessarily going into global warming and things of that nature, but I think people want to know about 1) how can I change my behavior, 2) what’s the future like for my kids, 3) if I’m a kid, what is my generation going to have to do to fix past mistakes. We’ve got a lot to draw upon here in energy and environment, with companies Battelle, AEP or Honda. So we think of putting a lot of focus on that.

Then the other area that’s really fascinating is the technology in the medical field. There has been a lot of advancements in our health that technology plays into. So we’re seeing those as two prime areas for us to draw from in our community. We want to draw from the local community so that it’s relevant. It might be a place where your dad works, or it might be talking to an engineer who’s 25 years old. Innovation Showcase has a video of a young woman who is a PhD in Electrical Engineering who looks like she’s a high school senior! We’re trying to put more of the face of the younger generation in front of this current generation. We’re trying to get more and more away from fifty-to-sixty year old white men, like myself, and put the more diverse population that we have in this community and draw from local communities. Science Makers is one of those types of upcoming programs. This is a National Science Foundation funded initiative with a group out of Chicago who are bringing in leading African-American scientists and researchers into different cities in cooperation with leading science centers around the country. We are going to host four of the leaders in the biological sciences. We’re trying to do more and more of that type of thing that gives us the breadth, the depth and also the dynamics.

WE: When I look at COSI, I can’t help but also look at all of the land around COSI. That section of East Franklinton is roughly 90% parking lot or unused grass/dirt spaces. Do you think there is some potential in consolidating some of that parking and bringing in new mixed-use development? Or even creating some kind of COSI District?

DC: I’ve looked at that since the first day I came on board. I asked what was the plan was for building around COSI. I went through this exact same thing in Pittsburgh where they put the Carnegie Science Center on the other bank of the river, away from downtown in what used to be an industrial area, and they never materialized plans around it until frankly the last five or six years. It was a good ten years after the Carnegie Science Center was built that the community finally started to catch up with putting things around it. If you look at Franklinton, Mount Carmel kind of anchors one end and we anchor the other. We’ve started to at least talk about what would be an ideal use of the space. What could happen if any development around us takes on the energy and flavor that we’re adding into COSI. We could really make a model community. What would it look like if we really made it a green community, which the mayor says he’s for. We have a blank palette. We have to protect our parking, and we’ll have to sort that out over time… but how can COSI spill out into the community?

Then you take another angle into this… you have the Scioto Mile right across the river. There’s the bridges that they are building, and the Scioto Audubon too. All this great development on the river. What if we start taking a look at the COSI property and really start to do more with building activity levels around COSI? We’re thinking about taking the science part, pulling it out and putting it back out front so that anyone in the public can participate in it. What can we put on the river side that would add levels of activity? Like our Farm Days for example. Or solar cells or wind turbines. We’re really looking at our ability to anchor that area. We’ve been having public forums to have these conversations. I think it is a tremendous opportunity for the city to take advantage of the strength of our footprint there and really build off of it. We’re hoping the city sees a way to get more return on a $120M investment they made on COSI. Just sticking us over here and hoping we survive is not a good use of the money that was invested. But using us as an anchor for redeveloping that area makes all of the sense in the world.

WE: Are there any other messages you’d like to get out there from COSI?

DC: Yes, that Midwest “aw shucks” attitude that we struggle with… We’re finally getting leverage with the zoo and the libraries – all of the #1s that are in town. That’s a pretty sizable group. The community needs to start celebrating those things. To some degree, people take COSI for granted. This is the type of facility and organization that you find on the coasts in one of the bigger cities. We need to recognize what a jewel we have here in COSI and see that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves moving again. We’re back at a national leadership model. People look to us, ask us to write articles or write articles about us. It’s really making us a community anchor and a center that connects the community with all of the things that take place and doing it in unique ways. We had the National Science Board that oversees all of the federal funding in the sciences come and visit us because they couldn’t go to OSU and understand how OSU – a research one institution – is deploying public dollars for research without coming to COSI to see how the public outreach component was working. So I think it’s trying to have the community understand more and more the leadership role and the special nature that COSI has, and frankly, support it. Whether its coming more for date nights, or if you’re working for a corporation, think about using COSI for corporate events and off site parties and things of that nature. Those are all ways that the community can help us survive. We’re only as good as the community embraces us to be. From their usage, to talking us up and sharing their pride. A lot of these number ones Columbus has, a lot of cities would die for! How can you have the #1 science center, the #1 library, the #1 zoo, the #1 ballpark, and #1 university president? A lot of cities would love just one of those! I think the group that reads Columbus Underground is the group that is really driving the future. The attitudes and the priorities that they set will set the attitudes and priorities of the city. The more they embrace those things and carry them forward, I think the community will be carried forward.

More information about COSI can be found at cosi.org, and David’s blog “Chez Sez” can be found at chezsez.wordpress.com.

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