Two new exhibits opening Wednesday at Science City cost more than $1 million, but their potential to inspire future scientists and engineers may be priceless.
In fact, the exhibits were inspired by students who may grow up to be scientists or engineers.
Focusing on water and genetics, they are the direct result of the second Battle of the Brains competition among about 3,500 students from 193 schools.
And they are part of an ongoing renaissance of the science center at Union Station that opened 15 years ago. More than half of Science City has been overhauled in recent years with new exhibits and attractions made possible by more than $5 million in donations from the Burns & McDonnell Foundation and in-kind services from the company.
The foundation’s explicit motive is to encourage passion among young people for science, technology, engineering and math.
“I know this sounds grandiose, but if America is going to maintain its economic and scientific edge, that has to begin by creating young and new scientists,” said Greg Graves, chairman and CEO of Burns & McDonnell. “If science doesn’t stay cool, it’s only a matter of time before we lose that advantage.”
Burns & McDonnell officials were gratified to learn that every member of the team of about 30 students who submitted the winning high school entry said they plan to pursue a science major in college.
The investment in Science City, after many years of financial drought, also looks to be paying off. Attendance at Science City was up 7 percent and revenue up 17 percent in 2013. Attendance has grown in double digits this year, said Union Station CEO George Guastello, who added that operation of the science center is now financially self-sustaining.
“It gives us a chance to evolve,” Guastello said.
Union Station is seeking other private partners to keep the momentum going. The station is about $2 million away from completing a $9 million fundraising goal for improvements that will include a new entrance for Science City and an entrepreneurial conference center.
The new exhibits cover 5,600 square feet of Science City. Both rely heavily on interactive displays.
The larger one, called “Every Last Drop,” was inspired by a winning entry from Olathe North High School. It examines the properties of water, the interaction between water and life, how we use water and the threat of water scarcity.
Highlights include a large Archimedes screw, a simple machine that helps water defy gravity, and a sand table where visitors can create landscapes and observe how water interacts with them. Among other things, a visitor to the exhibit learns that it takes 18 gallons of water to produce an apple but it takes 713 gallons to make a T-shirt.
The second exhibit, called “Genetics: Unlock the Code,” was inspired by a winning entry from Leawood Elementary School. It examines the similarities and differences among people that are determined by variations in DNA.
Highlights include displays in which visitors can create photographic clones of themselves and experiment with altering their hair and facial features.
A team from Burns & McDonnell held work sessions with the students to help turn their ideas into real exhibits.
“I’d say 97 percent of the ideas came from the students’ original submissions,” said Greg Goss, senior architect with Burns & McDonnell.
About three-quarters of the content in the two new exhibits is original to Science City and not off the shelf.
Burns & McDonnell previously has donated to Science City a robotics lab called Engineerium and an Earth sciences projection system called Science on a Sphere. It also built an exhibit about energy that was inspired by the first Battle of the Brains competition.
The Olathe North and Leawood Elementary students who won the second contest are expected to attend a 10 a.m. grand opening of the new exhibits on Wednesday.
“The best part for me,” Goss said, “is to see how excited the students get when we show them the realization of their ideas.”