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Friday November 21, 2014

 

New Museums hope to spark interest in space and science

To infinity and beyone

by Michael Reid Staff Writer

Hayes in planetarium

Staff photo by DARWIN WEIGEL
Alan Hayes of Owings has been working toward opening the Spaceflight America Museum and Science Center at Calvert High School. The science center includes the Arthur Storer Planetarium, which will be used to show movies and documentaries.

Two new Southern Maryland museums are hoping to spark some interest in science and space.

The James E. Richmond Science Center, which opened last fall on the campus of St. Charles High School in Waldorf, has a science Discovery Lab where people can conduct experiments, a state-of-the-art digital projection sphere and a 184-seat domed theater.

“I just really think that the fact that we are able to have this in our area at such an accessible place [means people are] going to be surprised at what they thought they knew as opposed to what they come away learning,” said museum Director Monique Wilson. “When they’re able to see what they’re experiencing in real life put on a dais in front of them and they see the science behind it, it just kind of breaks down that misconception that just certain people are good at science.”

In Calvert County, the Spaceflight America Museum and Science Center in the Arthur Storer Planetarium on the campus of Calvert High School has several rooms and a domed theater with more than 50 seats.

“I really do [see a need for it],” said Alan Hayes, the museum director and chairman and CEO of Volanz Aerospace Inc. “I don’t think there’s enough. When we first started talking about this [museum], there really wasn’t anything here. My kids were going to Calvert County schools, and there just wasn’t anything keeping them here. If I wanted to do something over the summer about science and maybe be involved in it and do some experiments or just shadow somebody, where would I go?”

The James E. Richmond science museum has a large rotating orb — invented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — that can be used to show continents, oceans, weather patterns and small movies. An instructor is able to make notations on the sphere by writing on a tablet.

“The sphere is in your face right now, and the kids can say, ‘This is happening right now,’” Davis said of the sphere, one of just 105 in the world. “It’s cutting-edge NOAA technology. We’re fortunate to have one.”

The museum also has a science Discovery Lab where visitors can conduct experiments. Past experiments included making windmills, glow-in-the-dark mixtures and the fabrication of Oobleck. December’s theme will be “Science of the Snowflake.”

“It’s realistic. It’s kitchen science and something everyone can do, and the little kids are like, ‘You know what? I can do this,’ so hopefully that translates to the classroom, where they have that [science] phobia,” Wilson said. “We have certified teachers who work here part time, and they will lead the community through it, but that standing over it and saying, ‘First do this. First do that,’ no. It’s all about discovery and making it work for you.”

On a recent weekday field trip for students from Mary H. Matula Elementary School, the domed theater featured “Dynamic Earth,” a 35-minute movie on weather and the environment narrated by actor Liam Neeson.

“[It’s] the graphics and the pictures and the sound,” Wilson said. “Even though you’re not moving, people think they are moving in their seats. That’s how immersive the dome is.”

“My favorite part of today was the movie theater because it was a really big screen, and I actually felt like I was in the air,” said Mary H. Matula third-grader Anthony Perino.

To date, every Charles County pre-K through 10th-grade student has visited the museum.

The Spaceflight America Museum and Science Center in the Arthur Storer Planetarium will hold a two-day soft opening Nov. 21 to 22 but will hold its grand opening sometime in the spring.

“This is just a tease,” Hayes said. “We’re giving you the food samples — you have to come back and get dinner later.”

The museum came about from a proposal 18 months ago to use the Arthur Storer Planetarium, which had been vacant the last several years and was most recently being used as a guidance center while Calvert High School underwent renovations.

“We’ve been doing [space] camps [at College of Southern Maryland] for years, and we have a huge collection of artifacts from NASA,” Hayes said, “so we figured we’d take the next step and [look at] the possibility of building a science center down here. We knew this building was available, so we made a pitch for it. It just wasn’t being used, and why waste a great resource like this?”

Many of the artifacts in the museum are on loan from NASA, while others were salvaged from the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi when it underwent renovations.

“They built a brand-new science center on the highway, and they just shut it down one day and left it behind, so we had the opportunity to go in there and hand-pick what we wanted, which was great,” Hayes said. “It was a great opportunity and right place, right time.”

Some of the artifacts at the museum include a glove box where visitors can try on space gloves; Apollo, Russian and Chinese spacesuits; a prototype for an Apollo spacesuit and an Oct. 16, 1963, letter congratulating Roger Chaffee on becoming an Apollo I astronaut Oct. 16, 1963. There is also a 1969 NASA group achievement award that was presented to the Apollo 11 mission operations team, a Gemini V manned spaceflight group photo and a piece of a wing from a space shuttle.

“There are a lot of unique items in here,” Hayes said.

The pièce de résistance of the museum will be a mock-up of the inside of the International Space Station complete with sleeping quarters, restroom facilities and a display that shows the growing of vegetables aboard the ISS.

“[This exhibit] is the one that’s going to get everybody’s interest,” Hayes said. “You can actually see what it’s like to really be inside the International Space Station. And there isn’t another ISS exhibit within a couple hundred miles. We were very lucky to get the one we got.”

The two museums are looking for a way to generate interest in the sciences.

“Our former superintendent, Mr. Richmond, always talked about the ‘wow factor’ and how he wanted us to re-energize Southern Maryland with science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Wilson said. “We’re in the tech corridor, and what we’re finding is we don’t have a lot of tech people coming back to Charles County and filling these jobs. And when the school came along, it was just one of those things that it was a place where everyone could come together, learn and, through that learning, beef up our kids to have a homegrown pipeline so that Southern Maryland could stay strong with homegrown folks. The vision was to have a place where everyone can come, and just be educated the fun way with the wow factor.”

“We’re really excited,” Hayes said during a private tour last week. “It’s been our dream to get this place up and operating, and here we are. Everything’s fallen into place for us the last six, eight months.”

mreid@somdnews.com