COSI Showcases its NASA Learning Lunchbox at World's Fair in Dubai

The global exposure at the Dubai event highlights the Columbus science museum's pandemic pivot.

Dave Ghose
Columbus Monthly
Frederic Bertley in 2017

In 2019, COSI was on a tear, selling more tickets and receiving more philanthropic support than ever before. “We were living the dream,” says Frederic Bertley, the Columbus science museum’s chief executive.

Then, in March 2020, everything changed. The Scioto Peninsula attraction closed its doors as COVID-19 emerged as a public health threat—and those doors remained shut for the next 15 months, a longer period than almost any other cultural institution in Columbus. As a scientific organization, the museum had perhaps a greater responsibility to follow the guidelines of health experts. Plus, Bertley’s own background—he’s an immunologist with an expertise in vaccine development for retroviruses—amplified the need. “I can’t open and act like I don’t know the data,” Bertley says.

More:COSI voted USA Today's 'Best Science Museum' for the third consecutive year

That decision, not surprisingly, had serious economic consequences, including staff layoffs because of lost revenue (COSI relies on ticket sales more than other cultural institutions). But the pandemic also created new opportunities, one of which was on display this week on the global stage.

At Expo 2020 in Dubai—the COVID-19-delayed world's fair that wrapped up this week—Bertley joined with collaborators from NASA to highlight a pandemic-inspired educational partnership: the NASA Learning Lunchbox. This scientific kit was one of several developed by COSI over the past two years, a game-changing initiative for the institution. So far, the museum has distributed more than 100,000 kits, a total that could grow to about 300,000 by the end of 2022. The museum also has formed partnerships with a variety of people and institutions, including the U.S. Department of Energy, Virgin Hyperloop and Miss America 2020 Camille Schrier, a biochemist who performed a science experiment for her talent portion of the pageant.

COSI employees distributed science kits for children at the Columbus Barnett Branch Library in 2020.

The pandemic pivot began as a way for COSI to help fill a deep educational need. After adding more digital content to help educators teach science while school buildings were closed, COSI moved into home-based kits, with all the materials for schoolchildren to conduct five scientific experiments in a box. These products caught on, and COSI soon developed versions around such themes as space, water, the human body, dinosaurs, nature and energy. The museum also began to attract funding for the project—first locally, from the city of Columbus and Franklin County, then from other Ohio municipalities and the federal government.

“We had a massive state impact,” Bertley says. “We were in all 611 school districts, impacted more than 30,000 students. We’re in all 88 counties, and we were in over 160 libraries, delivering these kits and content. This was really exciting.”

Though the kits were a pandemic-inspired creation, Bertley doesn’t want to see them end now that the health crisis has lessened. He envisions a wider distribution throughout the United States and even the rest of the world, capitalizing on the exposure at the Dubai global event. He says COSI already has a pilot project in the works in Barbados. He also thinks the kits could be a profit generator. While the initial kits were free, he hopes a retail version of the product will grow more popular. “We generated a new line of content, a new line of experience and a new line of revenue,” he says.