Growing Up COSI

Emily Thompson

On Easter Sunday in 1964, George Pantalos was fixated on his family's only TV in the living room of their North Side home. From his couch, 12-year-old Pantalos watched the live broadcast as Columbus' Center of Science and Industry (COSI) opened its doors at Memorial Hall at 280 E. Broad St.

"I remember it was kind of the moment of climax when they started swinging Foucault's pendulum," Pantalos, who is now a professor of surgery and bioengineering at the University of Louisville, says of the 200-pound ball that demonstrated Earth's rotation.

He didn't know it at the time, but COSI would become an integral part of his life. He would spend countless hours at the science center exploring interactive exhibits, setting up experiments during science fairs, building model space flights, sleeping on the floor as a volunteer during overnight educational programs called Camp-Ins, teaching kids about flight during summer classes and, eventually, sleeping on the floor as a chaperone during his daughter's Camp-In. Pantalos was a COSI kid.

"A COSI kid, by our definition, is anyone who has volunteered here, former team members, people who slept on the floor during Camp-In, visited here in the past or present-really anyone who has been inspired by or interacted with COSI," says COSI spokeswoman Jaclyn Reynolds.

This month, more than 300 COSI kids have been invited back to the science center, which moved to 333 W. Broad St. in 1999, for activities around the building and a gala celebrating 50 years since that first pendulum swing. Since 1964, more than 30 million people have experienced what COSI has to offer through exhibits, programs and outreach efforts. Many of those young visitors grew up to be scientists, engineers, doctors, science teachers.

Throughout his teaching career, Pantalos has studied the cardiovascular system. Now, he's working on what he calls "the astro-surgery project," NASA-sponsored research at the University of Louisville that asks what it would take to perform emergency surgery during spaceflight. During his most recent zero-gravity flights with NASA, he wore a COSI patch on his flight suit to commemorate the anniversary.

For the Shepherd siblings, COSI has been a recurring part of each of their lives. All four visited frequently as kids while growing up on the East Side, participated in programs like Camp-Ins and volunteered when they were in middle or high school. Perrin and Tobin Shepherd even came back to work at COSI. Tobin is now a geriatric social case worker in Columbus, and Perrin works for COSI on Wheels, an educational program that travels to schools throughout Ohio and surrounding states to teach kids about science.

"My mom and dad wanted to make sure that we learned about science early on, and they thought COSI was a great place for that," says Perrin, who logged more than 2,600 volunteer hours at the old COSI building between his junior year of high school and the summer after he graduated.

The Shepherd sisters both went into engineering-Dorian is a chemist for Sunstar Engineering in Springboro, Ohio, and Devon is a composite sourcing specialist for GE Aviation in Cincinnati.

"Volunteering [at COSI] is definitely what sparked my interest in science. I was a big science nerd in high school-it was easy because I knew a lot of the basics from visiting COSI so much," says Devon, who teaches middle-school girls in the the Girls Discover ... Engineering! program. "I probably wouldn't have gone into engineering otherwise."

As COSI has grown, the mission to inspire and engage kids has remained the same, says COSI president David Chesebrough.

"We understand that the first few years in a child's life are critical," Chesebrough says. "We want to make sure we have as many people as possible in education, science, math. We can be that place for inspiration, connecting kids to those possibilities-even the adults."