Squeals and laughter peal and ping through the galleries at Boise’s Discovery Center of Idaho. These are the sounds of play. But this is a bit different than what you’d hear at a park or a school yard. Here, this also is the sound of learning.
One of those squeals belongs to 3-year-old Kirin Vecchione as he runs between rooms, eager to play with the hands-on exhibits that make up “SuperStruct,” the center’s newest exhibit, and the new young children’s area.
His mom, Amy, of Boise, tagged along, helping when he needed her and letting him explore on his own when he could.
“We just joined today,” Amy Vecchione says. “Kirin can really run around here and do what he wants. Before, I think it was for an older demographic, and it took a lot of explaining. Now, he’s just thrilled to be here.”
That’s part of the new vibe at DCI thanks to new DCI exhibit director Eric Miller’s ingenuity and a hefty gift from the Micron Foundation to allow the center to develop and build its own exhibits and to engage kids in STEM learning.
The innovation is working. New membership is up over the past year.
In February, Micron gave DCI $330,000 to expand its workshop with state-of-the-art equipment and tools, and to open up the galleries.
“SuperStruct: Some Assembly Required” — an exhibit built from the ground up by Miller, his staff and volunteers — opened the newly remodeled DCI on Nov. 20 and will run through May 2016.
This exhibit’s focus is on exploring mechanical, design and structural engineering principles through play — and there are challenges for all ages. Kids build towers, forts and ice cream stands out of cardboard boxes, then plow into them. They run through a tunnel made out of layers of packing tape that can also hold adults.
It took volunteers from Boise engineering and architectural firm CSHQA two weeks to build the tape tunnel using 6 miles of packing tape.
They sculpt shapes out of sand, then watch them splat in a “masher” created with a simple pulley system. They build cars boats and planes out of simple cardboard kits (with a little help from DCI educational staff).
Don’t worry, longtime members. The classics built by former Exhibit Director Bill Molina still are there — the Bubble Wall, Whisper Dishes, the tornado machine and more. But Miller’s emphasis is to continually create something original made on site that adds to and upgrades the permanent collection.
“We want to offer people the experience of something new,” Miller says. “We’ve turned the workshop into a production house, building our own infrastructure so we can create and expand on new ideas all the time. This gives us a new exhibit every six months.”
A traveling show might be in the mix in the future, but that will be a rare occasion. When a DCI show run is over, Miller keeps some exhibits and either sells or rents the rest to other science centers. For example, parts of the earlier exhibit “Launch It” are at Spokane’s Mobius Science Center. This new revenue stream helps fund future exhibitions, like “SuperStruct” and one they’re starting work on now that explores ideas of energy.
This momentum started building three years ago when executive director Kristine Barney came on in the center’s 25th year. Barney’s background is in university and corporate science rather than science centers.
With a fresh approach and a dedication to the ideals of STEM education, Barney began revitalizing the look and feel of the center with a remodel of the lobby and new paint. Hiring Miller intensified that cultural shift.
Miller, 50, grew up in Alaska, with a knack for building contraptions. He has a degree in museum studies and sculpture from the University of Oregon and returned to his home state and the Anchorage Imaginarium, where he worked for 10 years. During a redesign of that center, someone recommended he check out what Molina was doing in Boise. Miller did and was impressed with the engaging exhibits.
“We used it (DCI) as a model,” Miller says.
From there Miller went to Spokane’s Mobius, where he helped redesign that center and also consulted for centers around the country.
Miller’s approach for “SuperStruct” is decidedly low-tech, exploring the underlying principles that make things work.
“Exhibitions like this are fun,” Miller says. “I think people are exposed to a lot of digital media, and it’s great to have that experience of building something in the real world.”
Future exhibitions will incorporate more technology-based elements, he says.
Dana Oland; 377-6442 and @IDS_DanaOland
Discovery Center of Idaho, 131 W. Myrtle St., Boise. Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. 131 Myrtle St., Boise. $10 general, $8 seniors, $7 children 3-17. Free for ages 2 and younger and members. Military and AAA will get special rates. 343-9895, dcidaho.org.