Science Center Moving To Air Zoo


    KALAMAZOO — The Kalamazoo Air Zoo is in the midst of a design and funding process to launch West Michigan’s first hands-on science center.

    The original 14,000-square-foot Michigan Space & Science Center opened its doors in 1997 at Jackson Community College, only to close them for good in December 2003.

    Now the Air Zoo has acquired much of the center’s $30 million collection of space artifacts and is planning a re-incarnation of the center — one that will be at least twice the size of the original.

    The new center will be designed to serve as an educational, interactive science resource not currently found in the West Michigan area.

    “This will be a significant educational resource for western Michigan and the region,” said Stewart Bailey, former director of Michigan Space & Science Center and the Air Zoo’s new deputy director of education.

    “The plan is that this will be a hands-on science center, something that doesn’t exist on this side of the state, which is surprising considering the size of the area.”

    According to Bailey, parents and educators currently must travel east to Lansing or south to Chicago to find a dedicated science center, something that doesn’t exist on this side of the state.

    He said this means the region lacks not only the interactive exhibits that help fuel children’s interest in science, but also workshops for educators.

    “Especially in the elementary grades, the teachers haven’t had any training since they themselves got out of school,” Bailey said. “They’re not familiar with it and they’re not comfortable teaching it.”

    Bailey hopes that the center’s educational programs will help teachers become comfortable teaching scientific principles in a manner that is fun, hands-on and interactive. The same philosophy will be seen in its exhibits.

    “Kids in the lower grades think science is a lot of fun and pretty cool, but by the time they reach eighth grade, they are pretty much turned off to science,” Bailey explained.

    “The idea is to let them know that it’s still fun; the whole point is to get them hooked on science and to keep considering it as a career.”

    Bailey is currently working with Jeff Bernstein of Jeff Bernstein Exhibition Design Inc. in Kalamazoo to design the new center.

    Bernstein designed the original center, the Air Zoo itself, the Michigan Supreme Court Learning Center, the Detroit Science Center renovation and exhibits for the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, Henry Ford Museum’s Greenfield Village and the Smithsonian Institute’s aerospace center.

    Integrating a collection that includes an 83-foot Mercury Redstone rocket, a piece of moon rock collected by Apollo 15 astronauts, space suits, astronaut equipment and replicas of space vehicles, preliminary plans have the new center split into a variety of related subject matters. Themes include science fiction and cultural influences, astronomy and comparative planetology, science principles in daily life and space exploration.

    “We need to show how science affects us in our everyday lives — we want to be making those connections as we go,” Bailey said.

    “That was one of the things we always heard in Jackson, ‘You need to show how space helps people.'”

    The space exploration portion will feature robotics prominently, including an interactive replica of the Mars Pathfinder inherited from the Jackson site.

    Slated for a spring groundbreaking, preliminary designs include 20,000 square feet of exhibit space, 50 hands-on activities, demonstration-equipped classrooms and a 120-seat theater in a 40,000-square-foot structure.

    The new space and science center — to be a separate 70,000-square-foot structure on the Air Zoo’s grounds — will include a storage area also earmarked for Air Zoo archives.

    Located at 6151 Portage Road, the refurbished Air Zoo opened last May and has since been barreling toward its first-year attendance goal of 175,000.

    Having attracted more than 100,000 visitors in its first four months of operation last year, Air Zoo officials told the Business Journal they believed the announcement of plans for the space and science center — set to open in 2006 — also would boost attendance.

    “We had originally anticipated that if the numbers were good, to expand within a five-year time frame,” said Renee Newman, director of marketing and public relations. “With the positive attendance numbers and acquisition of the Michigan Space & Science Center, we’re now focused on opening the new museum sooner than anticipated.”

    The Air Zoo currently only touches the surface of space travel in its exhibits, mostly with a 3D tour of the International Space Station.

    “We have established ourselves as being on the cutting edge of what museums can do,” said Bob Ellis, executive director.

    “The Michigan Space & Science Center takes this even further. Museums are typically all about history. … The Air Zoo will not only teach the history of flight, but also the future of space travel.”

    Newman said that ticket costs for the new exhibit are still uncertain. Admission may be built into the Air Zoo ticket price, but could also be treated as a stand-alone feature.    

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