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Taking the Kids: Lessons from the Titanic for today's kids

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Media Services on

How quickly could you decode an iceberg warning? The kids at the Mystic Aquarium's new "Titanic, 12,450 Feet Below" permanent exhibit (, the cornerstone of the newly renamed Ocean Exploration Center, aren't having any trouble. They're also busy and boisterously challenging each other at the touch-table electronic game that has adults like me stymied. Speed is essential. The first to answer the most questions correctly, wins.

How long can someone survive in frigid water? (15 minutes.)

How many light bulbs lit Titanic? (Ten thousand. As she sank, Titanic was a beacon of light!)

The kids can make fish swim closer on a large-scale interactive wall that shows a montage of Titanic video and chart their own course in the "engine room." The giant iceberg glows and is cold to the touch; Kids take an interactive Iceberg Quiz. (Did you know only 12 percent of an iceberg may be above water?)

It certainly doesn't seem to matter to the children swarming through this new exhibit that the Titanic sank in 1912, long before their grandparents (and maybe great-grandparents) were born.

"Every generation rediscovers The Titanic," said Dr. Robert Ballard, the world-famous oceanographer whose team discovered the wreckage of the Titanic at the bottom of the North Atlantic in 1985. Ballard is the co-founder of the Sea Research Foundation's ( Institute for Exploration here that includes the Ocean Exploration Center, which he conceived. It's the only museum in the world dedicated to deep-sea oceanographic archaeology, geology and exploration.


"You saw every kind of human behavior the night the Titanic sank," Ballard said. Passengers and crew were heroic, cowardly, brave and fearful, selfless, as some gave up their lifeboat seats to remain with loved ones, selfish, as others saved themselves at all costs. Fathers kissed their children goodbye; mothers (and most famously the "unsinkable" Molly Brown) argued in their half-empty lifeboats to return for survivors. Terrified children swept up in the confusion were separated from their families. Fifty-three of the 107 children onboard were among the more than 1,500 people who died when the ship sank. About 700 people survived.

Another lesson for today's youth: the danger of overconfidence. Titanic's creators famously believed they had built an "unsinkable" ship and, therefore, didn't need enough lifeboats to accommodate every person onboard. "Everyone looks at that disaster and wonders what they would have done," said Dr. Ballard.

But the real point here is to encourage youngsters and their parents to "journey to new depths of discovery." That includes a 4-D theater where SpongeBob SquarePants takes you and your kids on an undersea adventure, complete with mist and bubbles.

Certainly it helps that "Titanic, 12,450 Feet Below" was designed by Tim Delaney, who spent more than three decades at Walt Disney Imagineering designing park attractions around the world. "We want to showcase science and discovery," Delaney said. "But we want to do it in a way that gets kids excited." That includes, he jokes, showing them how being proficient at video games can hone skills needed to control robotic submersibles used in deep sea expeditions.


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