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Hill Country Science Mill celebrates one year of making STEM fun for kids

The Hill Country Science Mill celebrates its one-year anniversary Feb. 13 with free admission and more. Staff photo by Jared Fields

JOHNSON CITY — When Bonnie Baskin began looking for a place to build an interactive, regional science museum that incorporated the latest technologies to draw middle and high school students, Johnson City won the day.

“I really think Johnson City was a good place — and I looked at a couple of other places — but Johnson City has several things that really stood out,” said Baskin, the founder and chair of the board for the Hill Country Science Mill.

One of those things happened to be that Johnson City is her hometown, but the other two included the old feed mill that became the science center and the fact the town sits easily within an hour’s drive of two major cities: Austin and San Antonio.

Still, a year ago when the Hill Country Science Mill opened, there was really no guarantee people would come. But now, the regional science center is celebrating its anniversary with free admission and a host of other activities, including the regular science displays, on Feb. 13.

Looking back, Baskin said, she can understand why some thought it odd to open a regional science center in Johnson City, but not her.

“I think you have to be the kind of person who sees the glass half full to do something like this,” Baskin said. “But I really believe if you offer high-quality, valuable experiences, it will outweigh the geographic constraints, and people will come.”

And come people did to the Hill Country Science Mill. Officials put the count at well over 35,000 in the first 10 months the facility was open. And this school year, Baskin said 7,000 children on class field trips have ventured through the museum with a possibility of 10,000 total by the end of the academic year.

“We didn’t know how many people would come that first day, if any. We had about 1,200 people,” Baskin said. “For every milestone we’ve had, we’ve exceeded expectations.”

The Hill Country Science Mill offers youth interactive experiences with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In fact, one of the reasons behind the the facility was to create a place where middle and high schoolers could see their future in the STEM fields.

To draw in this particular population, Baskin and other members of the board of directors as well as volunteers and staff knew they had to build something special — and unique. There were a lot of things already competing for students’ attention. Baskin and the rest knew going in they had to approach it from their target audience’s perspective.

“If you’re going to engage middle school students, you’re going to have to do it on their terms,” Baskin said. “And that means technology.”

So the staff and board brought in some of the most technologically advanced exhibits. And it’s not just things to look at from beyond a rope. The Hill Country Science Mill incorporates hands-on exhibits that the youth can work on, interact with and explore.

The Hill Country Science Mill brings STEM to life for the youth.

While the first year has been great, Baskin said there’s no plan to slow down. Since opening a year ago, they have added five more exhibits with plans to create an outdoor science exhibit.

The center is also adding on to the award-winning summer camp with additional dates and even off-site experiences.

Baskin said if the kids can’t make it to the camp or the facility, the center will look for ways to take it to the students.

When she walks though the center, Baskin can tell the STEM-based exhibits are reaching the youth.

“I watch the kids having so much fun,” she said. “And then having the parents come up to you and say, ‘Thank you for doing this for our kids,’ that just shows it’s needed and it’s wanted.

“While it’s in Johnson City, it’s truly a regional science center, and we want it to be a resource for the entire Hill Country area,” Baskin added.

On Feb. 13, the Hill Country Science Mill will celebrate its one-year anniversary from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. with no admission fee. From 1-2 p.m., the University of Texas Physics Circus will put on a number of experiments involving exploding bottles, flying balls, an electric pickle and other demonstrations.

The Hill Country Science Mill is located at 101 S. Lady Bird Lane. Go to sciencemill.org for more information. And don’t forget to register for summer camp online.

daniel@thepicayune.com

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