Across from the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Johnson City, Texas, a mill that was built in 1880 closed its doors after one hundred years. It was briefly revived as entertainment complex, but then fell into disuse again for another 20 years.
Once again, however, the mill has been reincarnated. With the vision and determination of a unique team of scientist/educators, the mill has gained a new life as a venue for students to learn about and participate in science. While maintaining the integrity of the old building, including outfitting the original silos as exhibit spaces, the mill has now become a different kind of food provider. Instead of the flour and grain it once produced for the local community, the mill is now a source of food for curious and eager young minds.
The Hill Country Science Mill opened its doors in February of 2015. My 3rd-5th GT classes were fortunate to visit the complex in April. After spending a school day at the Mill, they were all eager for even more time to explore its many interactive exhibits and amazing BioLab.
A couple of weeks after our trip, the 5th graders got the chance to Skype with one of the founders of the Hill Country Science Mill, Dr. Bonnie Baskin. She graciously answered their questions, and gave them insight into the design and carefully-selected exhibits.
One student asked Dr. Baskin about the motivation behind the digital avatars each visitor can personalize when he or she arrives. (Using a “Passport” with a QR code, patrons can scan the code and create their own avatar at the entrance on one of the many iPad mini’s. Once the avatar is created, there are many opportunities throughout the Mill to scan your passport, and you can learn from your avatar the science behind particular exhibits. You can also “favorite” exhibits and follow up on your visit using the QR code once you get home.)
When asked why the staff chose to include the avatars in the experience, Dr. Baskin replied that they really wanted to appeal to an older group of students. Many interactive museums are aimed at the toddler/pre-school set, but the Mill targets middle and high-school students. This is not to say younger ones won’t appreciate the experience, but that there is a great interest on the part of the staff to keep the attention of older students.
My students were fascinated with one of the silo exhibits – the Fractalarium (designed by two San Antonio artists), and asked Dr. Baskin about this inclusion of an artistic work. She confirmed what my 4th and 5th graders had already observed, that math, art, and science often converge in amazing ways. This piece of scientific art, based on the design of the broccoli, is a perfect example.
Many of the students told Dr. Baskin that the BioLab was their favorite room. Dr. Baskin agreed that this exhibit has a special place in heart due to a background in biology, and told the students they specifically designed this room with its zebrafish, mud battery, and microscopes, to resemble a real research lab.
Another field trip favorite was the Augmented Reality Sandbox. The sandbox has a projector above it that shows the contour lines of the “mountains” and “valleys” in the box. It also simulates rain when you hold your hands over the sand. Dr. Baskin shared that this is one of the harder exhibits to keep in working order because so many students enjoy it that the calibration gets off on the projector. However, she said that, like all of the exhibits, the staff finds that the maintenance is well worth it to provide so many interactive experiences for visitors.
The only complaint that I heard from my students about this trip was that there wasn’t enough time to do everything. That’s a good problem!
Many of my students said that the field trip to the Hill Country Science Mill inspired them to seriously consider a career in one of the STEM fields, and most of them definitely intend to return to the Mill for a visit.
You can see a gallery of some of the other pictures my students took below. Of course, if you are planning a visit to the Hill Country Science Mill, you should definitely get more information from their website.
Congrats to Tom Kilgore, winner of the Family 4-Pack to the Hill Country Science Mill! He and his family headed for an awesome experience!