Originally created 11/27/01

Fort Discovery seeks to bring science to youths



Suzy Kuhlman marveled at all the "hands-on stuff" in Augusta's interactive, "there's-nothing-like-this-in-Dallas" Fort Discovery science and math museum last week. But it was the exercise bike on the second floor that really fascinated her.

"You can pretend you are skiing," she said Wednesday. "If I had a bike like that at home, I might actually exercise."

Mrs. Kuhlman of Dallas was with her son Matt, 6, and daughter Kathryn, 2, on a pre-Thanksgiving romp through the technological playground on the riverwalk.

The Kuhlmans are among the more than 120,000 visitors likely to visit the museum this year.

Fort Discovery is a marvel in itself, the result of a partnership between the U.S. Army and the nonprofit National Science Center.

The museum originated in 1978 in the mind of a soldier, Maj. Gen. William J. Hilsman, then-post commander at Fort Gordon. It took nearly 20 years and close to $39 million dollars before the first patron crossed the museum's threshold. The center will mark its fifth anniversary in April.

Fort Gordon is home to the Signal Corps, the hub of Army communications.

"Soldiers coming in weren't able to handle the technology the Army was getting," the retired major general said just before the center's opening in 1997.

But that could change, he thought, if a way could be found to motivate young minds to study math and science.

Fort Discovery's mission is to do exactly that - creatively apply the principles of science to let people learn of its marvels and, hopefully, send them home wanting to know more.

After 1978, the Army had a couple of exhibit vans touring the country. It installed what was then called the Preview Discovery Center in an old post mess hall in 1989.

About five years passed before William S. Morris III, the chairman and chief executive officer of Morris Communications Corp., the parent company of The Augusta Chronicle, bought the mall space in the Mediterranean-style Port Royal on Riverwalk Augusta and offered it to the center as a permanent home. Then-U.S. Army Secretary Togo West agreed.

The next year, Mr. Morris donated the space to the nonprofit NSC Discovery Center Inc., said Kathi Dimmock, the director of marketing for the National Science Center.

The action made the museum eligible for government funding - $10 million from the Georgia state lottery and $3 million from local government. Private donors contributed an additional $6.5 million during the next two years.

The Preview Discovery Center closed in August 1996 and debuted the next April as the National Science Center's Fort Discovery.

Today, more than 270 exhibits are spread across two floors, covering 128,000 square feet. Exhibits whir, glide, spin and buzz.

The exercise bike Mrs. Kuhlman liked is on the top floor, where an opaque glass canopy forming the ceiling arches high above carpeted flooring.

Museum admission is free to Georgia schoolchildren. Teachers can find videos and other resources to bring alive the natural sciences and math for pupils.

The center is home to permanent exhibits, such as the coupled pendulums and the high-wire bicycle overlooking the Savannah River. It also books traveling wonders, such as the Mysteries of the Bog exhibit, which came in 1998.

KidScape, which captivated Mrs. Kuhlman's two-year-old daughter for hours, and video conferencing available in the Paul S. Simon Theater are popular features. The video-conferencing supports both distance learning and corporate meetings.

A high-tech museum such as Fort Discovery should have a high-tech Web site to match - and it does. The site at www.nscdiscovery.org offers a virtual tour of exhibits.

For more information, call (800) 325-5445.

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.