Eleven years ago Science City at Union Station opened to great expectations. Finally, Kansas City would be home to a world-class science museum.
By about 10 years ago, people were already grousing about it. Seen that. Done that. Doesn’t work.
The interactive learning center still draws more than 130,000 visitors a year. But critics and defenders agree it needs a spark.
Now, a jolt of energy is bringing new investments, new exhibits and new engagement with students and the community.
This will be a big year for Science City. A “floating” orb to demonstrate planetary science opens next month, soon to be followed by an activity room devoted to the basic principles of engineering, a bigger version of last year’s inventors’ extravaganza called the Maker Faire, and a new exhibit designed by budding scientists at Olathe North High School.
Teacher Amy Johnston, who remembers being somewhat disappointed by Science City as a teenager, appreciates the new buzz around the place.
“They’re looking at the whole big picture,” said Johnston, whose Olathe North students designed the exhibit to be installed in Science City. “I can see that this is a small piece of a bigger, long-term plan to kind of revamp the whole thing.”
The biggest catalyst for Science City’s renaissance is the engineering firm Burns & McDonnell, which is investing more than $1.25 million.
Company President Greg Graves acknowledges that the effort is a bit self-serving. Science-based enterprises like his need to encourage interest among young people to assure brain power for the future.
Union Station officials, finally able to exhale with a degree of financial stability, are turning their focus to rejuvenating Science City. A “white paper” now in draft form will serve as a prospectus for other potential donors. Business and academic leaders, as well as ordinary folks, will be recruited for an oversight committee to steer Science City’s continued improvement.
“Our goal when we opened in 1999 was to be an ever-changing, ever-evolving science center,” said Tony Cook, spokesman for Union Station. “Due to a myriad of things, we were never able to do it. Finally, the promise of Science City is happening. We’re seeing those changes and those new things coming in.”
A 25-foot-high dome now dominates the southwest corner of Science City, where the nature center used to be. The nature center is moving to a larger space that will accommodate more animals. The dome will house a feature called Science on a Sphere.
A globe, made of carbon fiber, hangs in the center of the darkened space. With 360-degree projections, it becomes the blue marble of Earth with moving images and data that can display weather patterns, tectonic shifts and other geophysical phenomena.
“Awesome,” said Science City educator Laura Santamaria recently as she practiced manipulating the sphere’s more than 300 data sets with an iPad.
With a touch, the 2011 Japanese earthquake and spreading tsunami can be illustrated on the six-foot diameter globe. Another touch calls up actual satellite images of our planet taken as recently as two hours before.
“Science on a Sphere was developed as a visualization tool,” said Beth Russell of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which developed the exhibit and provides the data. She was at Union Station recently for the installation. “Our goal is to help the education process for Earth science.”
Santamaria said scripted programs will be scheduled for the sphere, but between shows, visitors will be able to select what they want to see projected onto the orb.
Science on a Sphere, made possible by Burns & McDonnell, also can depict other planets. That will complement Science City’s planetarium, which will soon get a major upgrade of its own with a projection system offering greatly improved resolution. That and a new planetarium show about black holes is made possible by another benefactor, the Arvin Gottlieb Charitable Foundation.
In 2008 Burns & McDonnell contributed a robotics workshop called Engineerium to Science City. That program will be augmented with new emphases on wind energy and disaster-resistant building techniques.
Just outside a new entrance to the Engineerium, workers are building a 1,500-square foot exhibit area in which visitors can act out fundamental mechanics of engineering. The centerpiece will be an 8-foot tall lever with which a third-grader can physically outperform a middle-schooler.
Kansas City’s first Maker Faire last year, showcasing garage inventors and entrepreneurs, drew more than 130 makers and 6,000 attendees. The second one will be June 23-24, and the call for makers is out now at makerfairekc.com. Union Station officials are hoping to double the number of participants, with a spillover effect for Science City.
“There is a direct connection between Maker Faire and Science City,” said Union Station board member Bob Regnier. “It’s synergistic.”
Later this year Science City will unveil a new exhibit called “Unplugged” that was designed by the Olathe North students who won last year’s Battle of the Brains competition sponsored by Burns & McDonnell. The exhibit explores how mechanical power is transformed into energy and will feature a giant “hamster wheel” that visitors can run in.
The Battle of the Brains drew 560 entries from 456 teams of 2,500 individual students from 128 schools in 35 area districts. Those numbers were gratifying to organizers, who say it demonstrates Science City’s relevance.
Johnston, the Olathe North chemistry and physics teacher, is pleased that the science center is undergoing renewal. Her students spent time there as part of their involvement in Battle of the Brains.
“The kids were looking at the different exhibits and they noticed there’s a lot of things that were kind of outdated or maybe hadn’t been fixed in awhile,” she said. “When there is an area where a lot of equipment is not functional or is outdated, people just kind of go past that.”
On a recent visit by The Star, several elements of Science City seemed to be out of commission. Pushing a button on a red birdhouse in Melody Park produced no result. A scale that was supposed to tell your weight on Earth, the moon and Mars did nothing but eat quarters. A robot that was supposed to pick up balls was just going through the motions, because the balls had escaped the robot’s control.
Jeff Rosenblatt, director of Science City, acknowledged that not every exhibit works every day.
“No science center can keep everything working,” he said. “We keep on top of what exhibits are continually not working and if we can’t find a way to make them work consistently we take them off the floor.”
Maintenance costs money and that has been scarce at Science City, which does not receive any direct public assistance. An encouraging sign is that the center generated $881,000 in revenue last year, 10 percent more than budgeted and without any significant marketing investment.
But Union Station depends on private donations for new exhibits and attractions, which should translate into more visitors and more revenue.
Officials know they are battling public perceptions formed years ago.
“They really need sort of a reset moment, both actually and from a branding point of view,” Graves said when announcing the investment from the Burns & McDonnell Foundation. “We’re happy to do it.”