Next month Prince George's County school officials will unveil the new, $1.8 million Howard B. Owens Science Center in Lanham, which has been almost a decade in the making.
Replete with lasers, solar conductors and the metropolitan area's second largest planetarium, the facility will be both an educational center for students and a scientific showcase for area residents. It is located on Greenbelt Road less than a mile from the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center.
At a press preview last week, reporters had a close encounter with the center's newly appointed director, Hays B. Lantz Jr. "You may never see anything like this again," he said as the tour began. "It still sends an occasional shiver up and down my spine."
The building is an impressive, two-story structure that looks more like a space station than a school facility.
Inside, the walls are painted bright white with a rainbow pattern adorning the balcony to represent the concept of earth's sky. Every truss, beam and pipe has been left exposed so that students can see how a building is designed. Most of the lighting in the center comes straight from the sun, reflected through three rooftop picture windows.
"If you haven't guessed by now, we've tried to make this facility as functional and educational as possible," Lantz explained. "We wanted to take advantage of every natural resource."
In addition to the usual laboratories and offices, the facility will feature an array of scientific displays. Lantz said he plans to place displays right in the front foyer to get visitors involved in the center as soon as they enter the building. "These won't be static displays like you see at an exhibit or museum," he vowed. "They'll be active projects, hands-on things that people can interact with. The only limit to what we can do is the extent of our own imaginations."
Already installed in one display area is a parabolic dome that causes acoustical oddities. Also planned are a number of physics projects.
Past the displays, there is a door leading to what appears to be an auditorium. Inside, however, a visitor feels that he is drifting through space as the stars and planets pass above. This is the planetarium school officials have been raving about. The dome is 55 feet in diameter, the sound system includes 17 speakers and the equipment cost almost $200,000.
The planetarium will be open to the public at night for an admission price, and Lantz promises quite a show. "Forget all that movie-type stuff you see at most planetariums," he said. "We're going to be innovative.We can do a lot with lasers and projection. Eventually we hope to simulate actual space travel, to put you right in orbit."
The space odyssey doesn't end there, however. On the roof is a weather station and observatory. Long-range plans also call for a rooftop greenhouse heated by solar conductors. In addition, the surrounding acreage will be used as a nature trail for environmental studies.
The primary purpose of the facility is to educate. In this case, that means children of all ages. The center will feature programs for everyone from kindergarteners to high school seniors, with special sessions for teachers. Students will be bused to and from the center at school system expense.
"This place is not just for the science wiz," Lantz emphasized. "It's for anybody who's interested in seeing what makes their world tick. And I think that's just about everybody."
The center will specialize in the biological and life sciences. Students will also get consideration exposure to computers, and Lantz expects officials at Goddard to provide additional resources.
Lantz said that nationally there is only one other facility - Fernback in Atlanta, Ga. - comparable to this one.
"There are a lot of science centers around," he explained, "but most of them are more like museums. This is not a museum. It's an exploration center."
The facility is named after the man who was its chief booster a decade ago, Howard B. Owens, who served 15 years as the secondary science supervisor of the Prince George's County school system before his death in 1971.
Lantz, formerly an instructor and administrator at Orange County High School in Orange, Va., first learned about the center last December through a classified advertisement in the New York Times.
"When I read the ad, I thought it was a joke," he said. "I couldn't believe that in this day and age when scientific education is in a period of relative stagnation, somebody was going to embark on a program as progressive and ambitious as this one. I just wanted to be a part of it."
Competing against nearly 100 candidates (some of them PhDs), Lantz, 31, landed the job in June. Since then, he has been working non-stop to organize the center.
A botanist and doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, Lantz spends much of his spare time these days searching for good buys on used equipment and thinking up program ideas for the center.
"Some nights I wake up in a cold sweat wondering where do we go from here," he said. "That's why I have to keep planning years ahead. It may take that long for everything to blend together, but it will all blend together eventually if we have a good plan.
"I know there are people who'll disagree with me, but I'm not afraid to try new things," he added. "We tend to stymie creativity, to teach kids to comply with accepted modes. I think there's a lot of creativity in each and every one of us, and I want to bring out that creativity."
Lantz admits to being "a bit of a dreamer. But I don't think that's so bad. There's nothing wrong with dreams - especially when they come true like this one has." CAPTION: Picture, Hays B. Lantz is director of the $1.8 million science center and planetarium in Lanham. By John McDonnell - The Washington Post