An exhibit with an intriguing fusion of science and politics opened this week at the Science Museum of Minnesota. (And I'm not talking about the one that features Egypt and King Tut.) While the traveling Tut exhibit grabbed headlines, the Wonder Years quietly opened to teach Minnesotans about the stunning growth and brain development that takes place in infants and toddlers.

One activity allows visitors to see the world through the eyes of newborns and infants. A video shows children at different developmental stages to emphasize how much they learn in five years. A quiz show will test visitors' knowledge of young children in Minnesota. The exhibit even reveals some things that babies are better at than grown ups. (Identifying monkey faces? Hmm. Go figure.)

Exhibit creators at the University of Minnesota believe there's a gap between scientific understanding of infant brain development, and public understanding of this fleeting phase of life. If people knew, they might be stronger advocates for quality early childhood education, said Karen Cadigan, the U researcher whose team received $1.5 million in National Science Foundation grants to start Wonder Years and conduct related studies.

"The simple, everyday interactions between young children and adults, especially their parents, are powerful beyond appearance. It is the accumulation of these moments—in the grocery store, at mealtime, during play—that define the quality of the relationships upon which children's lives are built."

The opening of this exhibit comes as early childhood education is gaining political steam. While Gov. Mark Dayton didn't add much funding to early childhood ed in his 2012-2013 budget proposal, he singled it out as an area in need of investment when the state's finances stabilize. (One new investment in Dayton's budget would be an expansion of the Parent Aware system that rates the quality of child care centers and provides incentives for families to use the high-quality centers.)

The rating system was tested in Wayzata, St. Paul, north Minneapolis and in Blue Earth and Nicollet counties with the help of $20 million in private funding. Duane Benson of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, the business group that raised the money, said it is possible for the state to improve its early childhood programs by simply doing more with the public money it already spends. 

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