This weekend, the entire family packed up and headed down the mountain for a visit to the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. I felt like I needed to share some of this experience with the world at large, because if you’re not familiar with the NCMNS, you are missing something special. For years, the museum was a solid and fun experience for myself, my partner, and the geeklings, the latter of which especially enjoy the skeleton of Acrocanthosaurus. With the recent completion of the Nature Research Center, the museum has become a real treasure. We made our second visit to the NRC and our first visit to the Museum’s “backyard,” the Prairie Ridge Ecostation. I’ll talk more about both places below the break.
Our first stop was Prairie Ridge. We were the only people there on a Friday afternoon, but a nice gentleman greeted us and pointed out some key features. I had wondered if we might run into the Dragonfly Woman, who has a great blog and who works out at Prairie Ridge, but we didn’t on this trip. The first thing we noticed was that even as winter approaches, the place is just teeming with wildlife.
The place is also set up so well for educational programs. The outdoor classroom was spectacular, and there were plenty of “getting dirty” activities permanently set up for kids who have had enough listening for the time being to dig in and learn with their hands. They have a gnome-home building center (a favorite with my geeklings) and a couple of dirt piles to play in, including one with fossil-laden dirt from Aurora, NC. The classroom and the nearby shelter at a water garden were set up for rainwater harvesting.
The facility also has installed a good-sized solar photovoltaic panel and a vertical axis wind turbine for demonstration. The turbine was a Windspire turbine. I’d seen a presentation on those at Asheville Green Drinks some time back and was impressed with the both the output and the cost efficiency of these turbines.
Lest you forget that real scientists work here, there are plenty of signs that this was more than just a gee-whiz experience. We noticed a collection of numbered tubes attached by various methods to trees. We asked and found out that these were for keeping counts on treefrogs that lived in the preserve.
In addition to the prairie, there are several permanent and seasonal bodies of water, and a simply constructed bird blind that affords the opportunity for a good sized group of kids to sit and watch the birds go about their business around one of the permanent ponds. The facility also has a “treevangelist” who is collecting multiple specimens of many native NC trees to supplement habitats and provide a potential repository of germ plasm. These trees included the persimmon tree, which was in its post frost dilapidated glory.
The following morning, we trekked over to the Nature Research Center. I am a huge fan of this facility. They are serious about not only teaching about science here, but about doing good science and including the public as part of the process. The family classes offered, particularly to homeschoolers, were extremely exciting. I checked back in with one of my favorite staff members, Deb, who is the co-coordinator of the Micro World Investigate Lab on the 3rd floor. Deb and I had chatted a good bit about uses of fungi and about algal biofuels the last time we were in town and this time, she showed me the algae bioreactor that one of her homeschool classes had set up, while the younger geekling was practicing her micropipetting skills.
I was also excited to meet the volunteer in the Micro World iLab, Jess. I recognized Jess from the ScienceOnline 2013 Circle on Google+ and got a chance to introduce myself. She helped the elder geekling get started with a microscope slide with some pond scum and on which various microflora and fauna were observable.
The other iLabs were just as exciting – the Visual World iLab had several different common scientific data visualization tools for the kids to play with, including a couple of computers with FoldIt running. The elder geekling solved a few of the introductory puzzles and elicited a promise from me to add FoldIt to the links she can reach from her computer. The Natural World iLab gave both kids a chance to play with water, measuring liquids with volumetric flasks, beakers, graduated cylinders, and pipettes. I spent some time talking with the lab coordinator in this lab, Bob, about the programs he runs for kids. I was excited to hear that he had recently done a basic chemistry laboratory for homeschoolers.
Just like Prairie Ridge, though, there is real research going on here and its being done in full view of the public, with invitations open. When I was there last, the microbiology lab had posters showing work led by Julie Urban, the assistant director of the Genomics and Microbiology Lab, on the genetic diversity of local leafhopper populations where local students had been enlisted as participants.
There was also some quiet time in the Naturalist Center. The interactive tabletops were pretty popular that day, so we didn’t spend a lot of time with them on this visit. (Last visit, we had the tables to ourselves for almost a half an hour, so there wasn’t much complaining.) The elder geekling did spend quite a good while exploring the collection of study skins.
Lastly, I was pleased to discover that the first high school I attended had done well on an entry in the Museum’s RC electric vehicle competition. I’m proud of them.