East Alabama will soon see its first children’s hands-on science center with AO Discover!, a nonprofit museum that plans to house educational exhibits in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and arts.
The museum will open with permanent exhibits on the main floor, said AO Discover! CEO and Director Katie Murrah. The mezzanine floor will hold temporary exhibits and flexible-use space that will be completed in a later phase of donations and construction.
“We’d love to fit in a two-story spiral slide that you can travel down from the mezzanine to the floor,” Murrah said.
Exhibits planned for the museum’s opening include a farm-to-table grocery store, a racetrack with custom cars, virtual reality, a wind tunnel, pneumatic tubes and a musical exploration station, among other exhibits.
“An Auburn University engineering class is working on our musical exploration, building us some PVC pipe organs this semester,” Murrah said. “We have them signed on to build another exhibit next semester.”
When deciding on exhibits to feature, the museum looked for a variety of STEM skills that could be taught in a dynamic way.
“We didn’t want anything to be static,” Murrah said. “We wanted everything to be dynamic and fresh every time you come to the museum. Our team feels that, unlike other children’s museums… AO Discover! will be a place where East Alabama families want to come often. If we’re going to have families here all the time… we want to make sure that every time they come in, they have a new and exciting experience.”
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Some exhibits will be on monthly or biweekly rotations, Murrah said. A rotating clinic will allow children to act as various physicians such as pediatricians or veterinarians depending on the week. The farm-to-table grocery store will feature seasonal produce corresponding with the time of year. The racetrack not only switches courses, it also allows learners to build a new car every visit, building on experience from the last.
The museum does not have a set age range, but its opening exhibits will target learners up to eighth grade, Murrah said. She hopes that travelling exhibits will be able to target an older audience once the mezzanine is finished.
The museum plans to develop field trip packages for local schools, tailoring their visit for the lessons taught in class, Murrah said.
“We have plans to develop field trip packages that include pre-visit and post-visit information so that teachers can talk with the children about what they will be experiencing and what they’ll be learning before they go,” Murrah said. “[They can] also revisit what they’ve learned to make those deeper connections after they’ve returned to school.”
AO Discover! has cooperated with multiple other hands-on museums, including receiving floor plans for an exhibit from a museum in Pensacola, Florida, Murrah said.
There is no set price for admission or a yearly membership yet, but Murrah aims for the cost to be affordable. There will likely be discounted rates for field trip groups as well.
The museum does not yet have a set date to open, instead planning to open once exhibits on the main floor are fully funded and built. The museum has set a donation goal of $800,000 to open, with plans listed in $100,000 increments up to $1.5 million.
“We move at the speed of philanthropy,” Murrah said.
The museum has received donations in all forms from businesses and individuals. Architectural firm Goodwyn Mills Cawood donated all architectural services for the project and WB Construction donated contracting work.
“[The architectural firm] started several weeks ago and they’re working on finalizing the plans,” Murrah said. “We [also] have some individuals who have come forward. Bailey Lewis owns a residential construction company and… he said, ‘I just want to bring my tools and I would like to build what you need and help in any way that I can.’ He’s been doing some demo work.”
The museum continues to accept all forms of donations from individuals and businesses through the AO Discover! website. As the museum is a nonprofit, all donations are tax-deductible. There are also volunteer opportunities available.
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