Saturday, the new Hill Country Science Mill in Johnson City opens. It’s worth the hour drive. Here’s a little about opening day:
Look for special hands-on activities, face painting, a rainfall simulator, and Dr. Kold and his freezing experiments. Bobby Flores and the Yellow Rose Bands, featuring Rebecca Henricks, will play. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. The museum’s regular hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturdays and noon-4 p.m. Sunday, but it will be open Feb. 16 for President’s Day. Admission is $8 for adults, $6.50 for kids ages 2-18 or students with an ID, $6 seniors and military, and kids younger than 2 are free. Hill Country Science Mill, 101 South Lady Bird Lane, Johnson City. www.sciencemill.org.
Last month, I toured the mill and it was impressive. I’ll be writing about it in an upcoming Raising Austin column, but here’s a sneak peek:
Husband and wife team Bob Elde and Bonnie Baskin love science. They’ve made lifelong careers out of it. She as the CEO of two bio technology companies — ViroMed Laboratories, Inc. and AppTec Laboratory Services Inc.; he as the former dean of the college of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota. They want more kids to go into science and know that science careers go beyond doctors and veterinarians.
When they came down to the Hill Country in 2009 for a visit, they fell in love with the land. They bought a piece of property west of Johnson City and built their retirement home. Then they found an old 1880s grist mill in the heart of Johnson City and bought it in October 2012. “Even thought it was falling a part, to us it looked like it was a science experiment. It had all different parts added on over time,” Baskin says.
They bought it and turned the old science experiment into a new science experiment. Could they, through a museum geared toward science with a target audience of middle school- and high-schoolers, encourage future scientists? Could they help kids explore the many science-related fields? Could they take the old grain towers and turn them into something magical? And could they build a space rich in technology in the bones of a building that had seen many eras of science.
They researched other science museums, but ultimately developed many of the exhibits specifically for this site and this mission.
“We’re introducing them to science and how it relates to a career,” she says. “How can you make the next step? It’s more than an arcade of science here. It’s all the things you can do.”
When you enter the mill, you get an Avatar Passport. At each exhibit, you can use your passport to check in and find out more about the exhibit. You then can mark that exhibit a favorite. After your visit, you can go to the museum’s website, sciencemill.org, and find out more about the science behind the exhibits and the Science Technology Engineering and Math careers that relate to that exhibit.
“You can’t just hit a kid once with an interest in science,” she says. “You have to follow an interest and shape it.”
The exhibits are varied. In one of the first grain towers, you can use your cellphone to illuminate lights based on the strength of the electromagnetic waves in the signal your cellphone is sending. They call this exhibit Cell Phone Disco. Exploring science is supposed to be fun, after all. It’s all about being curious and looking closer at what you see and what you don’t see.
Another tower has an art installation of a glowing Romanesco broccoli, which has recurring fractal shapes. There you can learn about other fractals in nature.
A third tower puts you at the bottom of a cave in the aquifer and you learn the story of water as one drop makes its way down to you.
Two other towers will be filled with exhibits eventually and you’ll enter those from outside.
Like the Fractalarium, some of the science shown is done in art. You can watch a wall installation of different animals at flight and the different ways their wings move — something that often happens too quickly for you to see.
Other exhibits use live things. There’s a paludarium of plants and animals that shows how an ecosystem works. In the BioLab you can watch different stages of zebra fish and see how their DNA has been manipulated to create Glo Fish. You can look at a pile of mud and see the ecosystem that is forming within it.
A lot of the exhibits use computer technology. Dig-In is a computerized topographical map on top of a sandbox. You build mountains and valleys and watch the topography lines change with your creation. In the iGlobe, you get to see the Earth from space and watch changes in weather patterns, ocean currents and geological events. You can even track in real time a weather event.
You can perform virtual autopsies using the Virtual Human Body, or solve a DNA mystery in the molecular detective.
In the Energy Game, you can choose different scenarios to see how much energy you are using to run a town. Is it a sunny day? Turn on the solar power. Is it windy? Use wind power. What happens when you use only coal or only natural gas?
You can create an explosion in several exhibits. Turn water and electricity into a chemical reaction that will shoot a Ping-Pong ball into the air. Create a virtual explosion by virtually combining different atoms to form a molecule. Go with the Flow allows you to test out different circuits to perform different tasks.
Hill Country Science Mill also has many vehicle activities. You can race sailboats using wind and sails or try to improve on a classic wind turbine. You can build a car and race it on the electric race track. And for those who love robots, you can control a robotic longhorn and a rattle snake.
In another game, you and a partner try to move a white ball across the table using your brain signals picked up by a bio-sensor headband. You can watch your brain activity on a monitor.
There’s also a giant lever that you can challenge someone to a tug of war to see who can move the lever.
The museum will supplement these regular exhibits with maker stations. Many of the stations will have try-it-at-home components.
While the museum’s sweet spot is the middle-schooler and high-schooler age group, there is a toddler play area and grade-schoolers will not have trouble finding things to play with. If they can run your iPad, they will be just fine here.
The Hill Country Science Mill also has a 3-D theater, a store and a cafeteria, which is open to the public as well as to museum explorers.
This summer, the museum also will offer week-long camps.
Of course, the 21st century science you learned at the museum doesn’t end when you go home. You just go online and find all kinds of links and information your Avatar Passport selected for you.
“We’re talking to a lot of kids. What does it mean to be a scientist?” Baskin says. “We’re opening their eyes and introducing them to all the opportunities.”