Taking The Museum Experience Online With Virtual Explorer Zone

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When the entire country closed its doors in mid-March, the Science Mill was in the middle of its two-week “Robot Mania” spring break event, welcoming families from all over Texas during one of its busiest events of the year. The interactive science museum, housed in a repurposed 1880s mill in Johnson City, was also looking forward to a very busy season with nearly all of its field trip slots filled for the remainder of the spring semester.

But with the growing threat of COVID-19, museum founder, Bonnie Baskin, realized the need to close the museum to protect visitors and staff, and quickly change direction while staying true to mission. With the museum doors shuttered with stay-at-home orders in place, the Science Mill team jumped into action to create a new online learning resource for students, teachers and families to use at home. The Explorer Zone, an interactive online science program, features weekly episodes examining the science behind different Science Mill exhibits and explaining fun, hands-on, easy-to-follow activities to try at home.

“The Science Mill has always been focused on one thing: inspiring the next generation of scientists,” said founder Bonnie Baskin, PhD. “And even during this period of social distancing, we knew we could still be a destination for hands-on learning that sparks curiosity and ignites a passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). We are so proud of our team for quickly pivoting to create these engaging, entertaining online tools and resources for families and students.”

Explorer Zone episodes cover topics such a tour of the museum’s Aquaponics Greenhouse with the Science Mill’s staff biologist, followed by a demonstration of how to make a simple hydroponic system using materials found around the home. Another episode features an up-close look at the making of the Science Mill’s Incredible Ball Machine exhibit, an exploration of the physics of simple and complex machines, and a Rube Goldberg challenge. All videos, interactive games, hands-on activities, STEM career connections and bonus videos and educational materials can be found on the Science Mill website.

“From the start, our programming focus has been to expand understanding and appreciation of science in everyday life and spark curiosity in STEM careers,” said Baskin.

Innovation, exploration and adaptation is par for the course for Baskin, a career scientist and business entrepreneur. Earlier in her career, she founded and served as CEO for two successful biotechnology companies – ViroMed Laboratories, Inc. and AppTec Laboratory Services, Inc., which she led to acquisitions by larger public corporations. She and her partner Bob Elde (Science Mill Science Director and Secretary of the Board), the former dean of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, moved to Johnson City from Minnesota in 2010. When Baskin saw that the historic 1880s gristmill and cotton gin (then derelict) on Highway 290 was for sale, she had a vision for a state-of-the-art museum that combined the best of old and new.

Baskin and her team spent 18 months renovating the Science Mill site— building and sourcing interactive, engaging exhibits from around the world—and designing a place where kids can learn about STEM subjects and career opportunities through hands-on involvement. The museum opened on Valentine’s Day, 2015, with the theme “Fall in Love with Science”.

“Every day, the Science Mill and our programs give kids the opportunity to be curious, ask questions, think critically and imagine themselves as the problem-solvers of tomorrow,” said Baskin. “And since the U.S. demand for engineers and scientists is expected to increase at four times the rate of other occupations over the next decade, this need is greater than ever! We have a particular commitment to bringing these opportunities to students who have traditionally been under-represented in STEM fields: girls, minorities, low-income and rural kids.”

“No matter whether we’re bringing our learning experiences to folks at the museum or in their homes or classrooms, we’re here to encourage every budding backyard biologist, kitchen table chemist and playroom programmer to ask questions, test it out and try it again.”

Find more information at www.sciencemill.org

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