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Director looking to reinvent SciTech

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Updated: February 6, 2014 6:36AM

My first assignment for 2014 was both pleasurable and personal: I took my three grandkids, visiting from Texas for Christmas and their Uncle Brendan’s wedding, to SciTech Hands On Museum in Aurora for a much-needed snow-day romp.

Confession here: Even having worked for more than two decades nearly next door at our old downtown Beacon-News building on Benton Street, I’d never hauled my own kids into this interactive children’s museum.

Which didn’t surprise Arlene Hawks, who took over as executive director of SciTech last spring. Even after 25 years in existence, she said of the museum, “No one really knows about us.”

And she’s determined to change all that, beginning this year.

“We want to be a destination instead of a stumbling block,” Hawks stated within minutes of greeting my visiting crew. And she plans to reach that lofty goal by combining art with science.

As the kids romped through the spacious and colorful museum, flying from wind tunnel to tornado machine to prism scope to energy balls, the former teacher and I talked in detail about the museum’s past, present and future …. with a whole lot of emphasis on the latter.

I have to tell you, trying to keep pace with Hawks, who took on this role after retiring as a theater legend at East Aurora High School, is almost as challenging as keeping up with the Texas trio, ages, 8, 6 and 3.

“Every time students walk in here learning, like your grandchildren,” she said, “energy flows through the building. I want to bring energy and excitement into this space.”

And in order for that feeling to be contagious, she knows she has to reinvent and rebrand SciTech.

As an example, Hawks leads my entourage to the lower level, where a once “prison gray” lunchroom was converted, thanks to local artists and her “Meinstein” campaign, into a colorful room with walls depicting large cartoon characters and messages about health and science.

Lab partners needed

One of Hawks’ top priorities this year is to form partnerships with local hospitals and wellness centers to promote hands-on exhibits that teach kids how the food they eat affects them.

“Can you imagine …. eating lunch, then going to an exhibit that shows exactly what happens to sugar in their heart?” she asked. “With what’s going on with childhood obesity in this country, teaching wellness is that much more important.”

From the basement we hike to the third floor, where Hawks gazes out a window, looking at the river and describing how she wants to turn this wasted outdoor space into an “educational showplace” containing everything from dinosaur exhibits to a bird and turtle sanctuary to a playground.

Hawks, who spent most of 2013 “making friends and getting the choo choo back on track,” is already thinking about prototypes for new exhibits, and in fact, she takes us back to the main floor to demonstrate a “one of its kind” virtual sandbox prototype. Also in the batter’s box, she said, barely able to contain her excitement, is a Google Earth exhibit that uses a computer and three huge flat screen TVs to transform a kid from downtown Aurora to virtually anywhere in the world.

“We have to catch up with technology to make this place relevant,” Hawks insisted.

Also on tap for 2014 are a series of free monthly programs for kids that focus on themes: For example, January, which is National Dog Training Month, will feature visits by service dogs, including the Kane County Sheriff’s Department canine unit. February will be all about engineering, and March will celebrate Albert Einstein’s birthday with party favors, birthday cake and an up-close look at his work.

As my grandkids romp from exhibit to exhibit, it’s apparent this artist turned scientist is bolstered by the excitement on their little faces.

“Twenty-five years ago the mission of this place was to keep science alive for young people,” she said. “But we also need to keep creativity alive as well. You need imagination before you can find knowledge.”

In order to turn dreams into reality, however, Hawks needs funding. Which is why she is desperately seeking private and business donations. Which is why I appreciated the time she took from her fevered grant writing on Thursday to give this grand tour of SciTech past, present and future.

“There’s a new chief in town,” she proclaimed. “We are going to make something exciting for this community again … it really is all about community.”

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