By Zoie Clift,Travel Writer

The Mid-American Science Museum in Hot Springs is Arkansas’s largest hands-on science center and first Smithsonian affiliate. There are more than 100 exhibits and workstations to explore at the museum, which opened in 1979. The museum, which sits on 21 wooded acres, is also home to features such as the Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk, the world’s largest conical Tesla coil, and DinoTrek, the state’s first permanent outdoor dinosaur exhibit.

The museum has found innovative ways to stay connected to the community during COVID-19. The museum is known for both its STEM education offerings and hands-on science learning. Even while the museum was closed for COVID-19, they delivered online science lessons to supplement classroom curriculum and created Science To-Go kits that offered both lessons and materials to families in need.

“We have fully embraced digital education,” said Diane LaFollette, executive director of the Mid-America Science Museum. “Our early childhood science literacy program, Scientots, still occurs within the museum, but we also offer a Facebook version entitled Scientots Live where we have had over 1000 views in the last several weeks. The iconic Tesla Shows have been streamed directly into classrooms around the state thanks to Zoom. We have also done other virtual field trips with schools such as Henderson State University and the Russellville School District. We even did a virtual summer camp in 2020 and had one child from Australia join us.  We were thrilled to offer the third annual DinoLites, the outdoor holiday light display, by monitoring the number of visitors on the Dino Trek at any one time and ensuring social distancing.

”The museum has over 70,000 square feet of exhibit space situated on 21 acres adjacent to a national forest. The museum typically welcomes around 110,000 visitors annually from all 75 counties in Arkansas and all 50 states. The museum serves as an economic engine for the community, responsible for an overall annual economic impact of $4.9 million, and they have a special connection to the community. “We are closely tied with those we serve and strive every day to grow those connections by working to develop educational programming that is targeted toward our audience,” LaFollette said. “As a result, the museum received incredible support from the community in many ways.

LaFollette said the exhibit experience at the museum has remained relatively unchanged, thanks to extensive cleaning practices. “We did repurpose two exhibits so they are more  hands-free learning opportunities,” she said. “Our ever-popular block pit has been turned into a walking tour of the solar system and our resident Albert Einstein statue now occupies the space where the Bernoulli Blower was. He accompanies a video that teaches how to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic. The Underground Arkansas cave exhibit required extensive regular cleaning even before the virus, so we decided to close it temporarily to ensure the safety of our guests. We still have over 90 indoor exhibits that our visitors can enjoy and exhibits and trails on our 21-acre wooded campus. We continue to have our Tesla Theater Shows and have recently re-opened our hands-on Tinkering Studio with carefully curated activities that are safe for our guests.” 

The museum reopened to the public on May 18 and the museum implemented the requirements for re-opening set by the Arkansas Department of Health and the CDC. “This,  for example, involved advanced cleaning protocols, installation of 13 hand sanitizing stations throughout the museum, social distancing indicators on the floors where lines form, Plexiglas barriers at registers, online ticket purchasing and a touchless payment system,” LaFollette said. “We continue to require that guests over age 10 wear masks while visiting the museum and ask for contact information to assist with tracing should the need arise. Each day we take staff temperatures and require that masks be worn at all times and practice social distancing.

”LaFollette said for the first part of the year, the museum will be open Thursdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Once more people are vaccinated and the pandemic begins to recede, they will open Tuesdays and Wednesday too.  They don’t have a specific timeline on that just yet, but they plan to make announcements on their digital platforms once they do.

“Our plan for Mid-America Science Museum for the next several months is to understand how we can better serve our families and schools in light of what we have experienced during the pandemic,” said LaFollette. “We are asking ourselves questions such as: What can we learn from this to deepen our impact?  How can we integrate the new strategies we have adopted during this time into our post-pandemic programs?  What are our new goals and how can we get there?  How big can we dream? We have altogether stopped providing some of our programs and are reimagining others so we will have exciting new initiatives, backed by research, that are more effective in reaching the needs of our families, teachers, and students.

”The museum had intended to update their strategic plan in 2020, but when the pandemic hit, they postponed it until 2021. Now, using the lessons learned from this past year, LaFollette said they have a unique vantage point to create a new strategic plan to ensure the museum is strong and sustainable for years to come. They hope to be back to being open 6 days a week by this summer and look forward to resuming programs like field trips, summer camps and Tesla Fest. They also plan to integrate digital programming, such as virtual field trips, into the mix and expanding their reach to schools and museums across the country.

“Once we are on the other side of this, I know the Mid-America Science Museum will be stronger for it,” said LaFollette. “Because of the work we are doing now, I know we will have a closer connection with our audience, deeper relationships with our funders and new expertise in serving our mission. It’s very helpful that museums across the country have been regularly checking in with each other so that we can share ideas and offer feedback. I’ve been talking to several colleagues from other states and we agreed that this time, though extremely tragic and difficult for us all, may ultimately usher in a new era for science centers. Historically, we have been following a well-proven model shaped in the 1960s by the Exploratorium in San Francisco. This adversity is causing us all to rethink and improve the way museums support science education.”