By Todd Vogts
Groups of youngsters herded by doting adults streamed across the expansive stone plaza in front of the building. It was spring break, and a warm breeze blew through the groups. The children laughed, enjoying the day.
Inside, the main lobby a large, geometric sculpture made of wire spun lazily overhead. The clinking of the Wentz Gravitron, a device that moves ball bearings up and down through a series of wire frames by using augers and conveyors, filled the air. Through the expansive windows, the Arkansas River can be seen flowing through the property. A man in a kayak floated by.
There weren’t many people in the lobby, but the sound of children could be heard coming from down a hallway.
Exploration Place — The Sedgwick County Science and Discovery Center — sees nearly 200,000 visitors each year. It is a place of incredible design and functionality, and it is celebrating 15 years of being a place of learning for residents and visitors of Sedgwick County.
“We will be 15 years old on April 1,” Exploration Place President Jan Luth said.
Exploration Place consists of 100,000 square feet sitting on 20 acres. It was designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie, who used geometry as the basis for the building plan.
“It was a real engineering feat to be able to create his vision and turn it into this amazing, functioning building,” Luth said.
Achieving a milestone of operating for 15 years within the community is something Luth said she is proud of, and the use of geometry in the engineering of the building is indicative of what Exploration Place is all about.
“It’s what’s going on here that matters,” she said.
A bridge connects the two buildings that make up the Science and Discovery Center. It is a gallery called the Bridging Art and Science.
“The art always has some connection to science,” Luth said.
The art exhibits change three times per year, Luth explained.
The Grand Hall is the first room visitors enter upon crossing the bridge. Director of Marketing Christina Bluml said soon the Grand Hall will become the an area about health.
“In the state of Kansas, that’s really a big initiative right now. To keep people healthy and try to give them different tools to keep themselves in a healthy state,” she said.
Currently there is a large mouth for visitors to explore, and Bluml said they hope to incorporate a big eye, a big brain and a big ear, among others to help people learn about taking care of their bodies.
When children are experiencing such an exhibit, they can touch the displays. There are also digital screens on which they can answer questions in the form of brain teasers about the objects they are looking at.
Being hands-on is a big part of Exploration Place.
“We’re an interactive museum,” Luth said.
There is also a nanotechnology exhibit and a flight exhibit.
“It is really highly interactive and engaging,” Luth said. “You can sit and do some of these activities.”
The flight exhibit is slated to be revamped in the coming years, Bluml said.
Exploration Place also boasts a Creator Space, which is an answer to the maker movement sweeping through the United States. Inside, there is an area for creation, complete with tools such as a 3D printer.
“It’s a wonderful location for children and families to come in and to create and to invent and use their imagination and problem solve,” Luth said. “Every month we change what they can do in it.”
Just passed the Creator Space is an area currently under construction. It will soon host an exhibit on climate and energy, which is being borrowed from a museum in Newton and researched by professors from Kansas State University. Eventually though, it will become the permanent home of Keva, which is a construction exhibit. It allows anyone to come in and create using wooden planks, which are the perfect tool to learn at any age because the planks do not pose a choking hazard.
“We just try to keep mixing things up and doing new things,” Luth said. “You have to continually be doing this. In the coming years, we will be doing one major change every year.”
Continuing to move through the space, a visitor would come to a gallery dedicated to the wildlife and geography of Kansas.
There is then a gallery dedicated to the building itself.
“Being in such a landmark building, people come in and say to the front desk, ‘Tell me about this building,’” Luth said. “Now we can say, ‘Come down here. Go through this exhibit, and you will learn all about this building.’”
One very interesting, though not as interactive, exhibit is the Kansas In Miniature display. It is a depiction of Kansas in the 1950s. It showcases various aspects of the state, such as the Nickerson water tower and the geological formation Castle Rock, all in one area. It is complete with moving parts, such as an active carnival and a train that whistles through the display.
“There are many moving pieces,” Bluml said. “It’s just a favorite of so many people, just because of the nostalgia it brings back for so many people.”
Luth said the display, which took two years to create, gives a peek into what makes Kansas what it is as it showcases airfields and agriculture.
“When you look at this, you can see the foundation of who we are today,” she said. “It seems like nostalgia and history, but it’s really the foundation of science and technology. The framework is there.”
The lighting in the room even changes to simulate day and night.
“It’s a very beloved exhibit,” Luth said.
Bluml said there are plans to make the area more interactive to fit in with the rest of Exploration Place.
Where Kids Rule is another popular exhibit. It is a three-story castle where children can go inside and take part in a variety of activities, such as music and putting on plays.
There is a simulated mote in front of the castle, and children can take part in an activity where they can build a bridge over the mote. If done correctly, Bluml said, an adult could stand on the bridge without it collapsing.
“It’s all about learning science, and you don’t even know you are doing that,” she said.
There are over 60 interactive activities offered by Where Kids Rule, Luth said.
Exploration Place also offers visitors the opportunity to watch science-related films in one of the 160 seats in the 60-foot-tall Boeing Dome Theater and Planetarium. People can also stop off in the museum store to find unique mementos and souvenirs.
A family could easily spend the entire day taking in all the museum offers, and there even is a snack bar available to satiate a snack attack.
Not all of the exhibits in Exploration Place are permanent, though. The museum has an area dedicated to traveling exhibits, which helps keep the museum fresh and continually offer opportunities for visitors regardless of how often the stop by.
Soon Exploration Place will have a new preschool gallery called Kansas Kids Connect. This gallery will be aimed at showing the museum’s youngest visitors the concept of STEM, which is a national educational initiative standing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Really, all of Exploration Place is focused on STEM, but Luth said the preschool gallery will help ignite an interest in science at an earlier age.
“Everybody talks about STEM careers and how important STEM careers are for the future of the economy in the United States and in Kansas and in Wichita,” she said. “The reality is, to get people excited to go into those STEM careers, you actually have to build that excitement in preschool. You have to start when they’re really young. That’s where it all begins. That’s the transformational opportunity. Let them become enchanted with the wonder of the world around them. That’s what science is for a preschooler.”
One striking aspect of Exploration Place is you won’t find children running around from exhibit to exhibit. Instead, the children are engaged and focusing on one area at a time.
“They’re really learning,” Luth said. “STEM is throughout, as well as imagination.”
Besides the museum property itself, Exploration Place also offers summer camps.
“Keep the kids busy because they’re not in school,” Luth said.
Over spring break, this consisted of field expeditions that took bus loads of children to experience different aspects of science, such as Maxwell Wildlife Refuge to see live bison and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve to look at plants and insects.
Education is an important aspect of what Exploration Place does, especially with its outreach educational programing. The museum offers STEM-orientated, grade-appropriate programs for all levels of students, including home school students. These informal science partnerships with schools are important to the museum and Luth.
“It’s a huge win,” she said. “The results are fantastic. Our methodology is a little bit different, and that methodology resonates with kids.”
During the last fiscal year, Luth said the museum had nearly 50,000 student in their educational programs, and she said she expects the number to be even larger this year.
The focus on STEM, which Luth said is what Exploration Place has always been about just by the nature of the museum, revolves around workforce development. Time will tell, though, how effective the museum’s STEM offerings are in driving children into those STEM careers.
“It’s going to take a little while,” she said.
As part of the celebration of its 15th birthday, Luth said changes are being made to be able to continue to serve the museum’s educational goals and keep the experience “fresh and dynamic.”
Luth said the staff, board and community are all wonderful assets to the museum. Everyone involved supports the museum and wants to see it succeed.
“It’s never a dull moment,” she said. “We feel very blessed and very fortunate.”
A single admission to Exploration Place starts at $9.50. Membership packages range from $20 to $1,000, so a family find just the right fit.
“A larger family saves money over time,” Bluml said.
For more information about Exploration Place, visit www.exploration.org.