With the holidays upon us, many families will be staring at blank calendar days, wondering what to do with restless kids. A trip to the Hill Country Science Mill is a welcome alternative to the sugar-fueled, gift-obsessed holiday vortex. In addition to a day of family fun and scientific exploration, it might hold one key to healing the schism between urban and rural communities in America.
The old feed mill on Main Street in Johnson City, Texas was a local landmark for generations. Originally a steam grist mill and cotton gin, it reincarnated as a flour mill, electrical power mill – and finally – as a feed mill. In the 1980’s a restaurant and entertainment complex moved in, a sign that the mill’s industrial days were over. Eventually the site sat mostly silent, one of those picturesque backdrops so prevalent in the Texas Hill Country and other rural counties across the country.
Its latest lifecycle, the Hill Country Science Mill, is anything but quaint.
The scientists behind Science Mill believe that STEM education is of critical importance to our country’s future. Founder Bonnie Baskin served as the CEO of ViroMed Laboratories and AppTec Laboratory. Her husband, Science Director Robert P. Elde served as Dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences. He served as the founding chair of UMN’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment. They had a home in Johnson City where they kicked off retirement by investing in the next generation.
“Kids don’t play around taking things apart and putting them back together again anymore,” Baskin said. “You can’t fall in love with science unless you do it.”
Originally the focus was intended to be middle school students, but Baskin has been amazed at how younger children have jumped right in.
From the moment guests enter the Science Mill and design their personal avatar who will guide them through the exhibits, the experience is highly sophisticated.
Baskin and Elde have scoured the globe for inspiring engineering and biology exhibits, everything from a virtual autopsy table to a hands-on banana phone lab. They aimed for less instruction and more exploration, believing that science captures the child’s heart when it is experienced, not explained.
The absence of heavy-handed exposition doesn’t diminish the educational component. Museums like the Science Mill and San Antonio’s DoSeum are challenging the traditional role of museums in education.
“Informal science education has always been looked at as more of an entertainer more than part of a holistic education approach,” Baskin said.
For Baskin and Elde, the search for new exhibits will be a constant challenge, and one they fully embrace.
“If you make the decision to create a pretty high-tech museum, you can never stand still,” Baskin said.
All of the technology relates to high demand STEM jobs. Students can go home, use their avatar code from the museum, and follow up on the science behind their favorite exhibits. They also can follow links to explore college programs and job opportunities in respective fields.
Over the summer, the Science Mill hosts Tech Career Immersion summer camps. There is even a mobile version for communities that cannot make the trip to Johnson City. The pilot program, which included sites at Texas A&M San Antonio and BiblioTech, went well, and Baskin expects the program to continue to grow.
Baskin is also a big believer in the value of STEAM education – STEM plus the arts.
The mill’s silos serve as installation space for exhibits that marry art and science. One holds the mesmerizing Fractalarium, another hosts a soothing interactive topographical sand map. One silo is devoted to aquifer education, retrofitted to feel like a cavern. In the Cell Phone Disco silo, designed by architect Ursula Lavrenčič and information designer Auke Touwslager, waves from your cell phone create patterns of light up and down the pitch black wall.
The museum is currently renovating its back yard to facilitate exploration of the adjacent Town Creek, but for now visitors can take their own samples and examine it under high power microscopes to see the many living organisms within.
The biology room is also home to a zebra fish breeding program and numerous specimens prepared for little hands to investigate.
Those young scientists, as they are called at the Science Mill, have their own designated space with large motor activities and simple machines. Parents can watch from the Lady Bird Lane Cafe seating, which extends into the museum.
The mill was renovated into an atmospheric space which keeps the Hill Country aesthetic. There’s nothing antiseptic or overdone in the space.
“We felt it was really important for it to feel like it was part of the community – not some fancy edifice that didn’t relate,” Baskin said.
It is The Science Mill’s location that makes it all the more fascinating.
All exhibits are in English and Spanish, and the Science Mill hosts field trips for schools from Austin, San Antonio, and the surrounding rural counties. Urban kids get out of the city, and rural kids experience world-class technology that is not somewhere “other.”
It serves as a welcome counterpoint to those who assume that the big city has exclusive lease on science and the arts. A winsome talking point for communities who might not cross paths otherwise.
For an even more complex discussion, educators could extend their field trip to include some history, government, and civics.
The Science Mill is located just down the street from the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. President Johnson’s commitment to public education as a pillar of his “Great Society” serves as a poetic partner to the Science Mill’s mission to inspire the scientists of tomorrow. While the Science Mill’s founders have admittedly shied away from politicized topics like climate change and evolution, they hope that the sciences will grab students in such a way that they see beyond the politics.
“I think we did a really good job of finding a common interest,” Baskin said.
Johnson City is the county seat of conservative Blanco County, yet their native son is responsible for one of the largest expansions of government programming. A visit to the Science Mill and the LBJ National Historical Park could spark an honest conversation on the urban/rural divide and the universal value of science. It is the perfect setting to discuss how Texas has produced some of the country’s most liberal leaders, not just its most conservative ones.
The Hill Country Science Mill, by focusing on high quality STEAM experiences, reminds the world that small towns are not just for quaint antique shops. They must be part of the conversation on our global future, and that begins with education.