Hill Country Science Mill teaches 2015 science in 1880s space

Husband and wife team Bob Elde and Bonnie Baskin love science. They’ve made lifelong careers out of it. She as the CEO of two bio technology companies — ViroMed Laboratories Inc. and AppTec Laboratory Services Inc.; he as the former dean of the college of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota. They want more kids to go into science and know that science careers go beyond doctors and veterinarians. That is their mission behind the new Hill Country Science Mill, which opened earlier this month.

When they came down to the Hill Country in 2009 for a visit, they fell in love with the land. They bought a piece of property west of Johnson City and built their retirement home. Then they found an old 1880s grist mill in the heart of Johnson City and bought it in October 2012. “Even thought it was falling apart, to us it looked like it was a science experiment. It had all different parts added on over time,” Baskin says.

They bought it and turned the old science experiment into a new science experiment. They researched other science museums, but ultimately developed many of the exhibits specifically for this site and this mission.

“We’re introducing them to science and how it relates to a career,” she says. “How can you make the next step? It’s more than an arcade of science here. It’s all the things you can do.”

When you enter the mill, you get an avatar passport. At each exhibit, you can use your passport to check in and find out more about the exhibit. You then can mark that exhibit a favorite. After your visit, you can go to the museum’s website, sciencemill.org, and find out more about the science behind the exhibits and the science, technology, engineering and math careers that relate to that exhibit.

“You can’t just hit a kid once with an interest in science,” Baskin says. “You have to follow an interest and shape it.”

The exhibits are varied. In one of the first grain towers, you can use your cellphone to illuminate lights based on the strength of the electromagnetic waves in the signal your cellphone is sending.

Another tower has an art installation of a glowing Romanesco broccoli, which has recurring fractal shapes. There you can learn about other fractals in nature.

A third tower puts you at the bottom of a cave in the aquifer, and you learn the story of water as one drop makes its way down to you.

Two other towers will be filled with exhibits eventually, and you’ll enter those from outside.

Like the Fractalarium, some of the science is shown in art. You can watch a wall installation of different animals at flight and the different ways their wings move.

Other exhibits use living things. A paludarium of plants and animals shows how an ecosystem works. In the BioLab you can watch different stages of zebra fish and see how their DNA has been manipulated to create GloFish. You can look at a pile of mud and see the ecosystem that is forming within it.

A lot of the exhibits use computer technology. Dig-In is a computerized topographical map on top of a sandbox. You build mountains and valleys and watch the topography lines change with your creation. In the iGlobe, you get to see the Earth from space and watch changes in weather patterns, ocean currents and geological events. You can even track a weather event in real time.

You can perform virtual autopsies using the Virtual Human Body, or solve a DNA mystery in the molecular detective.

In the Energy Game, you choose different scenarios to see how much energy you are using to run a town. Is it a sunny day? Turn on the solar power. Is it windy? Use wind power. What happens when you use only coal or only natural gas?

You can create an explosion in several exhibits. Turn water and electricity into a chemical reaction that will shoot a ping-pong ball into the air. Create a virtual explosion by combining different atoms to form a molecule. Go with the Flow allows you to test out different circuits to perform tasks.

Hill Country Science Mill also has many vehicle activities. You can race sailboats using wind and sails. You can build a car and race it on the electric race track. And for those who love robots, you can control a robotic longhorn or a rattlesnake.

In another game, you and a partner try to move a white ball across the table using your brain signals picked up by a bio-sensor headband.

The museum will supplement these regular exhibits with maker stations. Many of the stations will have try-it-at-home components.

While the museum’s sweet spot is the middle- and high-school age group, there is a toddler play area, and grade-schoolers will not have trouble finding things to do.

The Hill Country Science Mill also has a 3-D theater, a store and a cafeteria, which is open to the public as well as to museum explorers. This summer, the museum also will offer weeklong camps.

Of course, the 21st century science you learned at the museum doesn’t end when you go home. You just go online and find all kinds of links and information your avatar selected for you.

“We’re talking to a lot of kids. What does it mean to be a scientist?” Baskin says. “We’re opening their eyes and introducing them to all the opportunities.”

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