Despite being the biggest city in Ohio, Columbus is still vastly underappreciated. Most know it as home of the Ohio State University, but beyond football games it still flies a little under the radar. Perhaps its most underrated asset is The Center for Science and Industry (COSI), a massive, three-story, 320,000-square-foot hands-on interactive museum set in what was once Columbus Central High School. It’s a place where you can immerse yourself in the world of dinosaurs, ride a unicycle across a tightrope, and step into a street scene from 120 years ago all in the span of a morning.
With so much to see, figuring out how to spend your day here can be tricky. So we paid a visit to Dr. Frederic Bertley, the President and CEO of COSI and host of QED with Dr. B on Columbus’s WOSU (a National Public Radio station). He and his helpful team not only gave us an over-the-top COSI tour, but hipped us to the best stuff to see, and when to see it. So whether you’re planning a trip to Columbus, or live nearby and have been meaning to check it out, here’s how to crush COSI in just one day.
- Before you go: The #1 piece of advice for visiting COSI
- The best times to visit COSI
- Where to start your COSI visit
- How long you should budget to visit COSI
- The five best things to do when visiting COSI
- The five galleries you cannot miss when visiting COSI
- Three underrated areas you should visit at COSI
- What you can skip during your visit to COSI
- Where to eat when visiting COSI
Before you go: The #1 piece of advice for visiting COSI
Because COSI’s offerings are so diverse — spanning 300 yards of exhibit space and three theaters — realizing what’s a priority for you is the most important thing you can do before you go.
“The first thing you should do is go to our website, check out the stuff, and pick your preferred things to do,” says Dr. Bertley. “People routinely tell me they spend five or six hours in the museum, and if you check out the website first you can really map out your day.”
The best times to visit COSI
Like a lot of educational museums, COSI’s busiest times are spring break — March and April — and during the summer. You’ll find the lightest crowds in September and October, also the best months to visit Columbus, as you’ll experience pleasant temperatures, changing leaves, and the excitement of college football.
Where to start your COSI visit
Where you start your COSI visit probably will depend on what you want to see most. And as the museum gets busier the later you arrive, doing your top attraction first is probably the best move. That said, if you just can’t pick a favorite, the Dinosaur Gallery on the first floor is a good default.
“The dinosaurs are the coolest asset we have in the building,” Dr. Bertley says. “That’s the gallery that fills up the quickest, so if you want to come through do that first.”
How long you should budget to visit COSI
How long you spend at COSI really depends on how much time you have in Columbus. With 320,000 square feet of exhibit space, seeing it all is tough in less than a day, especially if you’re the type who likes to stop and read. But Dr. Bertley has seen all types of visitors, and offers some good advice.
The five best things to do when visiting COSI
If you’ve ever gone to the circus, seen someone ride a unicycle along a tightrope, and thought to yourself, “Oh helllllllllll nah!” you may want to rethink it. COSI’s 84-foot cable stretches across the museum’s main floor, allowing guests to revel in the thrill of performing a stunt with relatively low risk. You’ll be harnessed in for your ride, so no need to worry about falling. And even if you’re balance-challenged, a 250-pound counterweight keeps the center of gravity low so you won’t tip over.
As the name might imply, this daily animal show features a couple of Japanese Hooded Rats playing an intense game of one-on-one. To get an idea of how it looks, check out this video.
“You have to see it in real life,” says Dr. Bertley, who added that when he mentions the show to people outside Columbus they think he’s making it up. “It speaks to psychology and neurochemistry, and how you can train the brain even in animals to do all kinds of stuff.”
The Ocean section of the Center and Science of Industry is easily its best for interactive activities. The coolest among them is the mini-sub, set in a full room that feels like a life-sized research vessel. You can climb inside the submarine — which sits in bubbling water — then pilot an undersea ROV (remote operated vehicle ) to explore a world deeper than you could ever dive.
Step between rickety old doors and into a simulated coal mine elevator, which gives you the sensation of dropping hundreds of feet into the earth. It’s a tribute to the city’s coal mining history, which you’ll learn as part of the experience. This was such a popular attraction at COSI’s original location that when it wasn’t included in the new space, guests requested it so often that the museum brought it back as part of the Progress exhibit.
5. The Fart Piano
The five galleries you cannot miss when visiting COSI
COSI serves as a satellite site for New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and perhaps the most alluring aspect of that partnership is the Dinosaur Gallery. Like AMNH, the gallery greets you with a full-sized T-Rex skeleton, then walks you through the methods scientists have used to learn about dinos. You can stand next to a Titanosaur’s thigh bone, which is taller than most humans. You can also step into a cretaceous habitat mock-up, and get an idea of what the world looked like when these animals roamed the Earth. Most interestingly, you’ll learn that dinosaurs didn’t so much go extinct, but evolved into birds we know today. A lesson taught with replicas of dinosaurs you recognize covered in feathers rather than scales.
2. The Ocean
Part Pirates of the Caribbean, part Caesar’s Palace shopping mall, COSI’s oceanic education section is far and away its most elaborate. Wander through a fictional shipwreck, turn a corner, and you’re met with a towering statue of Poseidon, and kids spraying water at him.
Beyond that, you’ll step into a mini-submarine and pilot a ROV around the ocean deep. Afterwards, make sure to check out the “lily pad” and watershed areas, the odd live animal exhibit in the museum with creatures endemic to the Central Ohio watershed. For those who just want to relax in The Ocean, find the headphones near Poseidon that play selections from
Saunter through city street scenes from 1898 and 1962 in this exhibit that chronicles how the world has changed in just the past century and a half. The street seems a little more like a movie set, with storefronts you can walk inside, a golden-age era TV studio where you can read 1962 news, or a turn-of-the-20th-century telegram shop where you can send an old-school telegram. Progress is also home to the COSI-favorite coal mine elevator, a simulation of descending deep into the earth like a gilded-age miner.
The most practically-educational area of the museum, Energy Explorers educates visitors on how their choices affect energy consumption on a large scale. It accomplishes this by having visitors create a character, who they then take through three zones of Home, Transportation, and Product. The simulation includes interactive activities like the Errand Race — where you see if driving or walking takes care of your to-do list faster — and a driving game to see how far you can get on a tank of gas. But most importantly it scores each character on how energy efficient their choices are
Three underrated areas you should visit at COSI
The IMAX is a time-honored science museum tradition, but in the era of streaming services, much like traditional cinemas, it’s getting more and more forgotten.
“We have incredible content on the largest screen in the state of Ohio,” Dr. Bertley proudly boasts. “We have lots of cool science stuff, lots of nature content, and a beautiful sound system.”
The theater is on the ground level and runs shows all day. It might take up a good chunk of your time at the museum, though, so if you do want to catch a show buy tickets ahead of time and plan your trip accordingly.
This live-performance stage just off the Gadgets exhibit is a little like a live action Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye the Science Guy, right inside the museum. You’ll see live demonstrations of the power of science, running about every 15 minutes or so.
3. Art on the second floor
What you can skip during your visit to COSI
No matter your interest, there’s really nothing inside COSI you could call a waste of time. Every room is an education, and if you’ve got a full day go ahead and do it all. That being said, not everyone has six hours to spend, and if you don’t, there are a couple of things you can probably leave off the agenda.
First though it is the largest planetarium in Ohio, COSI’s planetarium is….a planetarium. If you’ve been to one before, you don’t need to eat up a half hour of your visit learning about the rings of Jupiter again. It is a nice place to take a load off if your feet are killing you, though.
The space simulator, where guests can climb inside and get a virtual trip on a Mars rover, space capsule, or other rollicking celestial ride is fun. The line to do it, however, is not. And much like lines at theme parks this one isn’t really worth the payoff.
Where to eat when visiting COSI
While the Atomic Café at COSI is fine and gets the job done if your kids are screaming for a snack during the museum visit, Columbus’ North Market is a short walk away and offers a lot more options. We suggest eating there before or saving it for a treat after.
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