Old Westinghouse atom smasher may have future as classroom

Woodland Hills is studying re-use of key part of the region's technological past

A question most people never guessed would be asked -- "Anybody want a used atom smasher?" -- has been answered with a yes by the Woodland Hills School District.

That's a qualified yes. There's a long way to go before that five-story silver thingy with the big "W'' that looms above Ardmore Boulevard becomes one of America's oddest classrooms.

But the school board has given acting Superintendent Alan Johnson the go-ahead to see if he can pull together oh, say, a quarter-million dollars in foundation and corporate money and spiff up this unique bit of our industrial heritage.

I met Mr. Johnson late Friday morning outside the smasher. It has stood at the edge of Forest Hills since it was built by Westinghouse in 1937, but it hasn't smashed an atom since 1958.

Inside the two-story building, staring up into the guts of the smasher, it's not much to look at it. Think the early scenes of "Young Frankenstein'' and know that it's going to take a lot more than a little paint and a few throw pillows to bring it back.

Mr. Johnson can see its future, though, and its beauty. Get students inside that building, and they'll get a feel for what scientists working from the Depression through the Cold War were doing.

"We'd increase their engagement in science, history and their home,'' he said.

Mr. Johnson also has spoken with Gary Gardiner, whose Dream Flight Adventures recently created a classroom simulator at Shaler Elementary School. That allows virtual trips back in time; one group of fifth-grade patriots recently battled U-boats and other ocean monsters as they tried to prevent the 1915 attack on the Lusitania.

If that could be set up in a conventional classroom, what would be added by this place with the state historical marker outside proclaiming it the "world's first industrial Van de Graaff generator''?

Mr. Johnson said we have to put ourselves in the minds of young people. Whether we like it or not, their medium of obtaining information is electronic. Getting them into a setting like this once a month, or every couple of months, will engage them not just with science, but with local history and its tie-in with world history.

The Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh and Preservation Pittsburgh are among his allies. Michael Shealey and other board members from the latter group joined Woodland Hills teachers on a tour of the facility recently.

"We need it because it expands our sense of what is possible,'' Mr. Shealey said. "After a half-hour inside the thing, coached by two very enthusiastic high school physics teachers, I was finally able to understand the idea of a magnetic field. It gave me a sense of wonder that I had never found in a textbook.''

Westinghouse was in the forefront of nuclear power in the '30s and remains a big player today. But if today's students need to learn that "science exists in a framework of capitalism in this country,'' as Mr. Johnson suggested, they should also know that a poor school district doesn't have the funds for this.

"I need a group of white knights,'' he readily agreed.

Washington developer Gary Silversmith, through P&L Investments, paid CBS/Viacom around $200,000 for the 11-acre site about eight months ago. Mr. Silversmith would retain ownership, but his spokesman said this educational component would complement plans to develop senior housing around it.

The site straddles the Forest Hills/Chalfant border and was cleared by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for unrestricted use in 2001. If the building is to be a classroom, it would need an elevator, bathrooms (how did those scientists manage?) and various other additions to meet modern accessibility standards.

I'll make no bet on whether Woodland Hills finds its white knights. I couldn't see all that much as I poked around with only the light that the sun provided through openings in the battered roof. But once I climbed the rusted ladder as high as I could go, I could see pretty much all of Chalfant, and maybe just a bit of the vista that future generations of students have coming.

education - neigh_east - brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947. First Published September 1, 2013 4:00 AM


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