Birth of National Science Center part of Signaleer's vision, legacy

by Lisa Alley

Somewhere between a crisis and a vision, between a legacy and a need, came the genesis for the National Science Center. In many places in that process of creating to nurturing something living is the Signal Regiment.

The concept of NSC was the dream of retired LTG William Hilsman, former commander of the Signal Center, Fort Gordon, Ga. Hilsman was inducted as a Distinguished Member of the Signal Regiment in 1998, in fact, partially because he was the "guiding light" (according to his Distinguished Member biography) in founding NSC, located in downtown Augusta, Ga. The former Signal communicator still serves on NSC’s board of directors as chairman emeritus.

In the late 1970s, while he was commanding the Signal Center and Fort Gordon, Hilsman realized that technology was developing at a much faster pace than interest in that technology was developing in America’s young people, creating a gap between the demand for technology and skilled professionals available to understand and work with it. This, the former commander saw, would affect the Signal Regiment and the Army. Hilsman began talking with corporate leaders as well and found they saw the same thing. America had a fundamental crisis in science education.

Answering the crisis

Education and science experts in other parts of the country were aware of the crisis and were researching how to counter it. About a decade before, for instance – in 1968 – scientist Dr. Frank Oppenheimer proposed the concept of what became the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and 1969 founded the participatory science museum – which is still a world leader in science education and interactive exhibits.

Oppenheimer, who directed the Exploratorium until his death in 1985, knew what research has since borne out: a visit to an interactive science center could sway a career choice, change a life.

"The National Academy of Sciences did a survey of pre-eminent scientists to ask them what factor most influenced their decision to become a scientist," said Dr. Dennis Bartels, director of the Exploratorium’s Center for Teaching and Learning, in a December 1999 email to Army Communicator. "A surprising majority mentioned a visit to a science center, museum or outdoor education center. The suggestion here is … of inspiration from a very vivid and singular memory, vs. an understanding of significant content as a result of a visit."

Science centers strive to be very memorable as well as to present "significant content," but a growth area for them also has been to aid teacher professional development. Science centers/science museums have collaborated with American schools, according to Bartels; several case studies of these collaborations were portrayed in the 1996 Institute for Museum Services monograph, "True Needs, True Partners: Museums and Schools Transforming Education."

Knowing how much effect a science center has on science education has been problematic, according to Bartels, but it has had influence. "That a teacher knows more science doesn’t automatically translate into higher student scores. The acts of learning and teaching are far more complex than these simple measures [test scores] can capture," Bartels said. "There are some studies in other countries like France where students participate directly with certain exhibits – such as human joint movement on a bicycle, compared with other students who only read it in a textbook – and the students who interacted with the exhibit scored better in their understanding of human joint mechanics."

Here we come back to the "inspiration" again – a student will better fundamentally understand science if he or she can interact with it, relate to it, "take it into" himself/herself. In that process, some students may decide they want to understand even more, and so begins a career in science. A science center, according to the Exploratorium’s executive director Dr. Goery Delacote, wants to impact science education but also to help "attract talented young people to science."

NSC, since its inception, has had the same agenda as the Exploratorium.

Originally a museum

As mentioned, the idea of a national science center – originally thought of as a museum for communications and electronics – came to Hilsman as the Signal Center’s commanding general. "We had new program executive offices for new technology, such as tacfire," Hilsman said in a January telephone interview with Army Communicator. "Kids were unable to handle the (Army’s new) technology, but I knew we could do something about it by using what we had at the Signal School and packaging that to motivate kids throughout the nation in math and science."

NSC was founded after Hilsman promoted it to other leaders in the Army and within industry. But it was a long road from there to here. "I could write a book on it," he said.

He penned 101 letters to industry chief executive officers, he said, and received 75 answers. "They were seeing the same thing I saw," Hilsman said. In 1984 the "Nation at Risk" study validated Hilsman’s beliefs; U.S. students were at the low end of the scale for math and science scores.

By 1980 Hilsman’s vision for improving science education and interesting youngsters in a science-related career had manifested itself as a combined communications museum/science center facility at Fort Gordon. "The United Kingdom was building a communications museum which portrayed the importance of communications to the nation," Hilsman said. "While CG, I had a team of four to five people looking at museums for ideas for ours, and I personally visited three to four museums. But in the United States about this time, museums had gone out of ‘play,’ and into play came something called a science center. I wanted our museum to look like a science center, for visitors to have interaction with things rather than just looking at them. None of our Army regulations addressed a science center, but they did include museums, so I used the museum regulations to get the project going."

Initially the plan was for the existing Signal Corps Museum and new science center to share the same building. The Signal Corps Museum needed a new facility anyway, as it was housed in a small, World War II-era building, and many of its artifacts were being stored in boxes and crates, according to the Fall 1980 edition of Army Communicator.

The leadership’s plans were to construct a multimillion-dollar museum and science center for communications … to not only have a modern museum to showcase the history and tradition of the Signal Corps, but also a museum dedicated to communications – their past and their future trends – as there was no national communications museum.

Artist's depiction of National Science Center Artist's depiction of National Science Center for Communications and Electronics in its early planning stages.

"Early in the preliminary work, something became very clear," wrote 1LT James Kellett of the fort’s Museum Affairs Office in the Fall 1980 Army Communicator edition. "To tell the complete story of the Signal Corps without also telling the story of its partners in the communications industry would be impossible because so many of the developments and accomplishments were a joint effort. Therefore the partnership between the Signal Corps and industry will be a major theme in the new museum."

"I put a task force together," Hilsman recalled. "Architects drew schemes for the new building. The project started at $1 million. Before I left command, this had grown to $8 million and ended up at $39 million to get going."

"The museum was to be a "lasting symbol to communicators everywhere" and a "science center where the visitor can touch, experience and learn," Kellett said. Following what former Smithsonian Institute director S. Dillon Ripley said about people looking for an "educational experience" from the nation’s museums, the new communications museum would "cultivate in the visitor that most crucial and elusive experience: awakening interest," Kellett wrote. "When (Signal) soldiers … visit the museum, they will leave better soldiers. … Ideally, they will gain new insights into how communications equipment works and be better prepared to learn their Signal jobs."

To bring Hilsman’s vision into reality, two nonprofit organizations were formed in 1980. One organization was the Signal Corps Association, now the Signal Corps Regimental Association. SCA was a membership association, nonappropriated-fund instrumentality organized under Army regulations then; it was entrusted to "unite individuals interested in preserving for posterity the proud history of the Signal Corps."

The other organization was a private, nonprofit corporation called The Foundation for the U.S. Army Signal Corps Museum and Science Center Incorporated. A board of directors as well as a board of advisers was formed to provide direction and leadership for planning the museum/science center. Retired LTG Walter Lotz chaired the BOD; also on it were Rep. Doug Barnard and three industry representatives from SRI International, Litton and Proctor and Gamble. Sen. Sam Nunn from Georgia served on the BOA, as did retired Chief of Signal MG David Gibbs, retired COL Kenneth Belieu and retired LTG J.D. O’Connell. Industry was also well represented on the BOA with 11 members.

Appropriated funds couldn’t be used to construct the new museum/science center; the original plan – following the Army’s museum regulation – was for the foundation to raise funds for design and construction costs, oversee the new facility’s construction, then turn the building over to the Army as a gift. After the museum was built, the Army would operate and maintain the museum and it would be open to the general public, with no fees charged.

With Nunn’s and Barnard’s assistance, said Hilsman, came the public law signed by President Ronald Reagan for the partnership between the Army and the legal "501-C3" foundation. After that, there were "lots of starts and gos," Hilsman said.

For instance, BOA members Robert Gradle of AT&T and John McKinney of ITT had "trouble defining what we wanted to do and why do it in Augusta, Ga.," Hilsman said. "The corporations wanted the science center in New York City or some other bigger place, but the partnership said we would be drawing from the Signal Center. Also, this idea was not confined to a building – we had developed courseware for ninth-grade physics and chemistry and had sent that out to schools. Texas used it, but no other state would because it wasn’t developed in their state.

"By this time, however, a new chairman of the BOD had arrived – Harry Gray, chairman of United Technology Corporation, took the leadership role," said Hilsman. "Gray was one of our nation’s top industry leaders. His leadership, then and now, were critical to the project’s success."

By 1981, the foundation’s name had altered to the National Science Center for Communications and Electronics Foundation (mention of the museum gone). The foundation’s 1980 name, said Hilsman, was because the project was still working off the museum regulations.

The Summer 1981 Army Communicator reported that updated plans were presented to the National Science Center for Communications and Electronics Foundation April 29, 1981: "One of the goals of the science-center project is to create a national asset at Fort Gordon which will be a catalyst for turning our young people toward math and science. The concept for a museum, omnitheater and science center will capture the rich heritage of the past and evoke enthusiasm for searching the future. The project’s official name, the National Science Center for Communications and Electronics, reflects this concept." The plans were for three phases of construction at Fort Gordon over five years, to be completed in 1986 and costing $17.5 million.

Hilsman retired from the Army in 1983 and "was struggling to get a company into place," he said. But the former SigCen commander’s vision was altering beyond his original intention by this time. The center was being built on 98 acres of donated land next to Fort Gordon under the leadership of Dr. Fred Davidson, formerly University of Georgia president. The foundation would work out of that building, as well as its serving as home to the science center. Courseware being developed had altered to algebra.

"I had some difficulties with this approach and thought it was not where we should be going," Hilsman recalled. "The Army’s part of the partnership was to develop things to take across the United States, as well as to use the Preview Discovery Center to develop future programs."

The prototype NSC, called the Preview Discovery Center, was a converted Fort Gordon dining facility that trained NSC staff and validated exhibit designs, programs and operational interaction with students, educational facilities and the general public. The preview center had more than 200,000 visitors.

The Army, Hilsman said, had by this time invested $2.5 million in the project; the Army’s "four-star" leadership told him there had better be a science center in two years or the Army was "out" of the project.

Hilsman left his job in industry and spent two years working intensely with the Army task force he created while SigCen commander, figuring out how to raise the $39 million now estimated as pricetag for the project. During those two years, Hilsman said, the task-force’s head called him and said a "mall" was available in downtown Augusta. This "mall" would become what is today’s NSC/Fort Discovery.

"I wanted the facility to stay where it was being built (on Fort Gordon), but then I came to Augusta and could mentally see the mall develop into what it is today," Hilsman said. Spurred by differences with the foundation’s BOD, a separate foundation called National Science Center/Fort Discovery Inc. split out from Davidson’s NSC foundation.

"The public law for the Army’s partnership was changed," Hilsman said, understating the political wrangling that took place. "The new partnership had a new ‘blessing’ for the new building."

This was formalized into the public law of 1985, resulting in a new partnership between the Army and a nonprofit corporation, NSC Discovery Center Inc. Support was also garnered from the state of Georgia and public and private donors.

"With the help of the business leadership in Augusta provided by Billy Morris, Paul Simon and Monty Osteen," Hilsman said, "as well as the elected leadership of Augusta, Richmond County, Columbia County and the state of Georgia, the necessary funds were acquired."

The "mall" was reinvented as NSC and Fort Discovery, NSC’s headquarters. (The name of National Science Center for Communications and Electronics had been shortened by now to simply NSC.) Fort Discovery opened April 26, 1997, in downtown Augusta.

Today’s partnership

Today’s NSC is the result of that unique public-private sector partnership with the Army, sanctioned by Congress and public law, and is dedicated to motivating American youth to pursue an education and perhaps their careers in mathematics and science … to show adolescents that math, science and technology can be "fun." NSC’s mission is to "support education, training and careers in math, automation, communications and electronics, and to promote technical literacy across the nation."

The continued Army influence, according to MG Peter Cuviello, Chief of Signal – in a 1999 interview with Signal, the Armed Forces Communication and Electronics Association’s magazine – may steer some children who became interested in math and science through NSC and Fort Discovery to elect a career in technology that coincides with an Army career as well.

"NSC and the work it’s doing with our nation’s youth is vital to this country’s future," recently said the Chief of Signal, who serves as executive agent of the NSC steering committee in the office of the secretary of the Army. "Getting these young people interested in and involved in math, science and technology is good for the country, good for tomorrow’s Army and especially good for the Signal Regiment."

The Army’s focus understandably is on the physical sciences. More than 270 interactive, participatory exhibits – some specializing in computers, communications and space technologies – can be seen at Fort Discovery, called "the Army’s offshoot" of NSC. Fort Discovery is one of America’s newest and most ambitious science centers. It offers young students a fun look at technology, and it offers teachers a resource for innovative science and math teaching.

National Science Center interactive exhibit NSC's Fort Discovery houses more than 270 exhibits which enable visitors to grasp, learn and experience technologies involved with communications, automation and computers. Children and adults alike may immerse themselves in science through live demonstrations, virtual realities and interactive exhibits.

"The focus for Fort Discovery has been to increase interest and excitement about science and technology concepts and careers," said Dr. George Fry. Fry leads the NSC-Army side of the house. "It’s been remarkable that the 20-year evolution of NSC and Fort Discovery mirrors the growth of the Central Savannah River Area and technology throughout the world, including the growth of Fort Gordon into the largest technical training center in the world."

Fort Discovery – 128,000 square feet and two stories – houses exhibits, a science store, a high-tech theater and a food-service area. Fort Discovery is also homebase to the educational programs and nationwide outreach (see related story) NSC excels in. The local, regional and national outreach program includes teacher and student workshops, summer camps and partnerships, satellite teleconferences and two traveling trucks that are expandable science theaters.

As for the original dreamer, he’s still dreaming. "My dream for NSC hasn’t changed," Hilsman said. "In 2000 and beyond, I’d like NSC to enter every school and impact every parent, every teacher and every student. The dream is much bigger than a building. The building is a laboratory. It germinates ideas and motivational materials to get into the schools."

Today the vision continues under three BODs: the NSC board, the Army’s executive steering committee and the Army secretary’s advisory board that includes industrial leaders from throughout the nation.

Part of the dream was recently extended with the introduction of the virtual science center through NSC’s website ( The website will have 11 themes, with the first theme – motion – on line now. The website includes classroom material, lesson plans and streaming video. "We’ve also done a compact disc to whet the appetite of teachers," said Phyllis Hendry, president of National Science Center Inc.

"The Army has been a faithful partner," Hendry said. "Without the Army, we wouldn’t be national. With the NSC partnership, we’ll continue to look for other ways to make NSC a science center without walls."

Ms. Alley edits Army Communicator.

Acronym QuickScan
BOA – board of advisers
BOD – board of directors
CG – commanding general
NSC – National Science Center
SCA – Signal Corps Association

dividing rule

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