Can you imagine playing in a 3-dimensional sandbox?
Or standing inside a silo with LEDs that light up in response to ambient cell phone use?
Or walking through an aquifer as you follow a drop of rain on its journey to become your drinking water?
Those are just some of the exhibits that will be on display for the Valentine’s Day Grand Opening of The Hill Country Science Mill, a beyond-the-state-of-the-art experiential learning center that was once a feed mill in Johnson City, Texas.
While this monument to fun learning wasn’t planned, it was inevitable.
“For years, my husband, Bob, and I had discussed the lack of interest and excitement in kids now about science, and how different it was when were kids,” said Bonnie Baskin, Founder and Chair. “There was no greater aspiration than to be a scientist.”
Baskin and “Bob”–Robert Elde–built impressive science, education, and entrepreneurial resumes in Minnesota. Baskin started and ran two successful biotech firms which were acquired by public companies. Elde was Dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences and helped author more than 240 scientific publications in cellular and molecular neuroscience research.
Around 2009 they decided to leave the cold and quietly retire in the Texas Hill Country. After buying and building their retirement home outside of Johnson City, they discovered that the 1880s grist mill and cotton gin property was for sale.
It germinated an idea–an idea that had been bubbling for period of time.
“We started thinking, well this might be an opportunity to utilize this wonderful building that kind of looks like science experiment,” Baskin said.
The pair decided that if they did do it, it was not going to be the “same old same old.” They would be looking at how to engage kids, not only with fun arcade-style activities inside the museum, but to make the connections and get them excited about careers in those fields.
By Baskin’s own admission, they “sort of went crazy” from there. Rather than retiring, the couple has worked harder the past two years on the Science Mill than they did founding and running two large companies. But they are not complaining.
“It’s fun, exciting, and obviously we are passionate about it,” she said. While setting up the museum, the Ph.D.s often found themselves helping pour concrete or install plumbing. “We feel we are building something that has the ability to make changes in a significant way about how kids view opportunities.”
As a former elementary and middle school science teacher myself, I understand that perspective. Science is a subject often taught without the excitement if deserves–especially at the elementary level. Baskin agrees.
“The difficulty with science is that we cannot fall in love with it by reading about it in a book,” she said. “That’s really what a science museum can do. It’s all about having fun!”
And will kids have fun at The Science Mill with exhibits such as these:
– 3-D Science Film Theater–showing The Great White
– Virtual Human Body–a 6-foot long touch screen table with actual CT scans coming into it, so kids can explore the human body by virtually peeling away layers from the skin to the muscles to the bones
– A working racetrack where you can build and race your car on a 3-lane figure-8 track
The exhibits are also designed to be intergenerational, to create opportunities for the whole family to work together.
So what is the secret to creating a cool science experience?
“The threshold is low, so all kids feel they can do it. But the ceiling is high: kids can take it to the extent of their interest, desire, and capability.”
They’ll be in the right place at The Hill Country Science Mill. Baskin and Elde are.
“Someone told me the first third of life is spent learning; the second third is focused on earning; and the last third of life is ‘returning,’” she said. “We have been very fortunate and had the opportunity to have an education and to accomplish what we did. Now we’d like to give back to kids; to give them the ability to be creative and to accomplish their goals, particularly those kids that have goals and interests in science and technology.”
The Hill Country Science Mill’s Grand Opening will be held on Saturday, Feb 14, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is located in Johnson City. Regular hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and it will open by reservation on Tuesdays and holidays for special events and school groups. There are also opportunities for adult volunteers. Visit www.sciencemill.org for information.