Texas Day Trip

By Megan Willome

Science Mill

Pictured: Photo provided by the Science Mill

The Science Mill museum in Johnson City is what Amber Middlebrook, outreach and community relations manager, calls a “free-flow museum.” There’s no right or wrong way to interact with the exhibits. It’s hands-on, not hands-off. Toddlers can learn to code using puzzle blocks on the Dream Tabletop, and older kids can take the pulse of a zebrafish embryo. Any age can have fun in the Cell Phone Disco room.

“I don’t think it’s an intimidating museum. We’re like, ‘Just figure it out. It’ll be fun,’” Middlebrook said. “We want to get kids invested in STEM careers, not just a lifelong love of science.”

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and continued career growth is expected in all four areas this century. Teachers are looking for ways to keep students interested in math and science, and the Science Mill wants kids and their families to consider STEM fields in their education and beyond.

“There’s all these amazing jobs out there. There’s careers that haven’t been invented yet,” Middlebrook said. “It’s also letting first-generation families with future college students know ‘This can be for you too.’”

Middlebrook says nurturing interest in STEM is especially important for girls — the gender gap is real.

“Something happens around fifth, sixth grade. Before that, they like science more than the boys do. Something happens in middle school,” she said. “Dr. Baskin believes there needs to be more women in science.”

Bonnie Baskin, the museum’s co-founder and chair of the board, holds a doctorate in microbiology. She started two biotech companies — ViroMed Laboratories and AppTec Laboratory Services — and served as CEO for both of them. She later sold the companies. Baskin and her husband, Robert P. Elde, a neuroscientist and former dean of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, bought a home in Johnson City when they retired. They grew up in a different era, when kids wanted to become scientists. They hope to rekindle that enthusiasm in today’s students.

“They wanted to give back in their retirement,” Middlebrook said. “How awesome to bring it to a rural area!”

The museum has volunteers who are retired STEM professionals as well as “explainers,” high school students who interact with kids on field trips.

“It’s the dichotomy of young almost-peers and adults who’ve had careers,” Middlebrook said.

Both are valuable because kids, especially young ones, don’t always appreciate how far technology has come.

“We talk about ‘The Jetsons,’ the journey from science fiction to science fact, like the video chat on that show,” Middlebrook said. “Kids younger than 10, they don’t know that didn’t always exist — ‘Someone made that?’”

The Science Mill got its name because it is a science museum located inside an 1880s feed mill that was once the heart of Johnson City. The museum architect worked to keep as much of the original structure as possible, including the long-leaf pine floors and part of a limestone and mortar wall. There is a photo of a section of that wall where the name “Lyndon” is inscribed. President Johnson once worked at the mill. Is it his signature? Maybe. Not all scientific questions have answers.

Visitors begin at one of several kiosks where they make a passport with a QR code. Then they use the kiosk’s tablet computer to make an avatar.

“It’s your personal tour guide through the museum,” Middlebrook said.

At most of the exhibits visitors hold up their passport, and a scanner recognizes the cardholder. The avatar then talks about the exhibit and mentions possible careers. Guests can tap a button to add a particular exhibit to their favorite list, and then at home, they can log into the Explorer Zone through the Science Mill website and find links based on personal preferences — everything from games to videos to college websites. The system is being upgraded this fall to create an avatar using your own face. Subsequent interactions at the exhibits will include the avatar speaking to the cardholder according to their age and grade level.

“So the information given to you as a kindergartener is different than if you’re a middle-schooler,” Middlebrook said.

I made an avatar robot that wore purple and blue, with a flower for a hat, sunglasses and cowgirl boots. I scanned it at several exhibits, including the Virtual Body Table, where my guide told me about jobs in scientific visualization, a career path I’d never heard of.

There’s so much to do — an interactive topographical map called Dig In! over here, programmable Critter Bots over there — that kids and their parents want to linger and tinker.

“When adults come in, they want to play too. It brings out a childlike curiosity. It makes learning fun again,” Middlebrook said.

Every exhibit has multiple elements at play. The Fractalarium, designed by two San Antonio artists, blends math and art using a model of Romanesco broccoli.

“Kindergarteners may not know about the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio, but they know ‘This is neat, and how does it work?’” Middlebrook said. “We had a physics teacher see this, and he flipped out — ‘I’ve never seen it come to life before!’”

Middlebrook says the Science Mill is unique among children’s museums because of its creative director, Zachary Zamora, who invents many of the exhibits himself.

“He’s just brilliant. He likes for things to be super fun but with STEM elements,” Middlebrook said.

The day I visited, Zamora and a crew were putting the finishing touches on the Incredible Ball Machine, which opened August 16. It’s a relaunch of the museum’s Kinetic Ball Sculpture, with added loop de loops, pulleys, pedals and seesaws.

Zamora designed the museum’s outdoor science and art park, and there is more land on the other side of the creek. He calls that space, “an open canvas.” The plans for its development are still in process, but like the rest of the museum, the exhibits will blur the line between art and science.

Middlebrook knows firsthand about that blending. Her background is in theater, and she also has her certification as a science teacher. She gave the example of a choreographer who can benefit from knowing about kinesiology, how muscles work.

“Being creative is something science needs. We like to show the connection between the arts and humanities and STEM,” she said.

Nowhere is that connection more evident than in the Silo of McKays, designed by Wimberley artist McKay Otto. The silo’s exterior, which, like the Magnolia silos, has been left in its original glory, hosts a permanent exhibit on the seven chakras, with seven paintings and seven Tibetan singing bowls. Dr. Bonnie Baskin told me the story of the silo.

“[Otto is] a friend of ours from before the Science Mill opened,” she said. “We were walking around, showing him everything. We have those big silos. We try to put unique, interesting exhibits in there that utilize that special space. He said, ‘Bonnie, would it be OK if I create an installation in one of these silos?’ We talked about it, and I was thrilled. He’s created a fantastic installation. It focuses on the chakras of Eastern medicine and all the properties of light and sound and color.”

Johnson City is not far from Austin and San Antonio, so the museum gets field trips from both cities, as well as from schools farther away. The Science Mill has supplemental materials teachers can follow, each divided by grade level and aligned with TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) standards.

Homeschool parents are not left out. Each month, from September through May, the Science Mill hosts a Homeschool Day with special guests and hands-on activities in the lobby.

Admission to the museum includes a ticket to the 3-D movie. While I was there, the 40-minute film was David Attenborough’s “Flying Monsters,” about prehistoric pterosaurs.

Unlike many museums, guests are invited to bring lunches or snacks. There are picnic tables outside. If you would like to purchase a meal “for the little scientist,” Lady Bird Lane Cafe is located on site. The restaurant has indoor and outdoor seating and is open from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and 12-3:30 p.m. on Sunday.

I spent a couple of hours at the Science Mill on a weekday morning near the end of summer. Visitors included not only parents and kids, grandparents and grandkids but also a yellow bus bringing a group from a nearby gymnastics and cheer facility. More crowds were expected that afternoon for the feeding of two African spurred tortoises named Speedy and Tortilla. I kept hearing kids say, “Look!” When we entered the biology lab, a kid yelled, “Whoa!”

Middlebrook smiled and said, “I get to hear that a lot.”

The Science Mill is located at 101 South Lady Bird Lane. Turn left at the stoplight, and it’s on the right-hand corner. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 12-4 p.m. School groups are welcome Tuesday through Friday. Adult tickets cost $10, seniors and military are $8, and students are $8.50. There is no charge for children under 3. Before you hit the road, be aware that the museum will be closed September 5-13 for maintenance. For more information, visit sciencemill.org or call 844/263-6405.

Join the Conversation