“What is now proved was once only imagined.” ~ William Blake
This is the story of one man’s dream for the future. That dream has become the reality of SciTech Hands On Museum where children and adults alike explore knowledge and discover concepts and imagine THEIR future.
"Despite the remarkable progress in the past decades in understanding our Universe, we particle physicists have failed to communicate the wonder, excitement, and beauty of these discoveries to the general public...informal science education and especially science and technology centers can play an important role in efforts to raise public awareness...of basic research." ~ Dr. Ernst Malamud
In 1982, Dr. Ernest Malamud took a sabbatical from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to work on a San Francisco project at the Exploratorium. He returned inspired to bring a similar place to the Midwest. "Too many adults are afraid of science because they have had little connection with it. An exploratorium gives [people] a chance to work with science and participate in projects so they won't fear it later."
His dream for the future was drafted in a Project Newsletter in 1987. Dr. Malamud reached out to colleagues and assembled an international panel to establish a science center that would be accessible to the entire population. Experts from France, England, and Russia joined with governmental scientists and local businesses in the Illinois Research and Development Corridor to form an advisory committee. On September 12, 1988 SCITECH was officially recognized as a business in DuPage County.
The collection of exhibits was given a temporary home in 1989. Developers Fred Barofsky and Tom McWilliams donated 7,000 square feet in the Iroquios Center in Naperville for one year. The housewarming invitation was titled "The Dream Becoming Reality," but Malamud had bigger aspirations. SciTech needed to double its space in order to expand into a true "museum" and charge admission.
The City of Aurora had purchased an old post office and wanted to see it used in such a way that it would help revitalize the downtown area. Marie Wilkinson wrote in an editorial, "As a charter member of this dream of SciTech, we now have this center in our lovely city of Aurora. It seems like a miracle is happening for our downtown area...The old post office was meant for it."
At the Aurora City Council meeting on January 16, 1990, the lease was approved 7-1. between January and June, more than $150,000 in improvements and repairs were made to the building. Much of the labor and materials came donated by Cordogen, Clark & Associates, RC Wegman Construction, Platt Electric, SG Somer, Inc., Fire Control, A & H Painting, Heitkotter, Inc., Bohr Roofing, Supreme Millwork, Michaels Lumber Co., Garbe Iron Works, Valley Contractor, and Omega Wrecking.
SciTech Hands On Science Center officially opened on June 16, 1990 with 60 exhibits. Unlike the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, there was no neon, Lucite, high tech stuff. “We’re not glitzy,” explained Victoria Fox, marketing coordinator. “First is science.”
Many capitol projects and changes have happened in the years since the doors opened. The original “Doppler Baseball” exhibit and the iconic “Hot Air Balloon” exhibit debuted in 1992.
SciTech Summer Camp began in 1993. Wild weather was unveiled and a new SciTech favorite was introduced in 1996: the Harmonograph was sponsored by the Stoner Family.
With the new exhibits came the need for more space. In 1997, the basement level of the building began to receive touch-ups. Many of the labs and activities were moved into the rennovated Grainger, Caterpillar, and Malamud classrooms. SciTech continued to add to the programs and expanded its outreach to schools.
Ronen Mir took over as Executive Director of the museum. Major capital improvements came to fruition in 2000. The building was upgraded to a central air system and the former parking lot behind the building was closed and paved. Over the next two years, five gigantic exhibits were installed in the outdoor park. Additionally, smaller exhibits were created to use the space, including the Lithophone and the Listening Chamber.
In 2004, the continued growth resulted in the development of the mezzanine level and the auditorium was opened for classroom presentations. ....................................................................................... The Great Recession of 2007 created a period of uncertainty for the fledgling museum. Many of the original founders had retired, funding was cut, and questions rose about the future. The museum reduced all staff members to part-time or volunteer status in 2009. Many of the promised features for SciTech, such as the building of a planetarium, faded away.
The forecast lifted in 2010, and by 2011 SciTech was expanding again. The outdoor science park was revitalized and reopened to guests. The gift shop was revamped, and wireless Internet was introduced. New exhibits, including the "Shrinking Room" and "Biblical Tech" were opened.
When Dr. Malamud began his SciTech venture, he was years ahead of anyone else. It wasn't until 2001 that the STEM acronym was introduced by scientific administrators at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).
The SciTech Discovery Preschool was only the second preschool in the country with a STEM-based curriculum. Made possible through funding from a grant by the Dunham Foundation, the preschool was focused on children's natural curiosity. "I have never met a pre-school age child who isn't fascinated by science," said Cheryl Newman, the preschool's director.
Another significant milestone in SciTech's history was in 2013 when Arlene Hawks became the Executive Director. The East Aurora High School's iconic theater teacher made outreach and education her goals in redefining the museum's position as a regional destination. The staff was slowly expanded and the museum began to recover connections with past partners.
The SciTech Hands On Museum collection expanded to include new environmental sciences, such as recycling and ComEd's Energy Savings. Use of tablets and digital displays began to appear.
Arlene Hawks was inspired to develop several health-based exhibits after her husband's heart attack. Healthy Heart and nutrition information were implemented in 2016. Skeleton Strong debuted in 2017.
Other familiar exhibits were re-imagined and moved. Space Travels and Ancient Times became immersive environments on the Lower Level. A grant from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory funded a new STEAM Computer Lab. The popular Color Crush game was installed.
Google Earth and the Augmented Reality Sandbox invited guests to explore topography. Santori Streams was introduced as a water feature in the outdoor park. Children were encouraged to explore engineering with Imagination Playground.
The world had caught up with the dream that Malamud had: science, technology, engineering, and math were highlighted careers. STEM fields had more than 6 million Americans.
In 2016, John Maeda, president of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), led a nationwide movement to add an "A" for arts to the acronym STEM. His reasoning was that design thinking and creativity are essential ingredients for innovation.
With changes from STEM to STEAM, SciTech Hands On Museum saw the niche market shrink. The SciTech Academy saw enrollment drop as more preschools were offering such curriculum. In a 2017 heartfelt decision, Hawks explained that SciTech was “no longer exclusive. The SciTech board decided...to put our resources into making the museum bigger and better.” Class of 2017 was the last set of graduating preschoolers.
The following year, SciTech Hands On Museum celebrated its 30-year anniversary. Dozens of new and improved exhibits were installed, including ComEd’s new “Smart Energy” exhibit and Molex’s fiber optics exhibit. The new Light & Color Room opened in 2018 and the Life Sciences area acquired a bearded dragon.
The former preschool space was converted into the Exhibitorium; the 1500 square foot flex space has hosted traveling exhibits, become a large performance area for conferences, and provides easy access to STEAM Stops: small lab experiences available to guests on Saturdays and school holidays.
Life on the Fox River debuted in 2019. New tables and shade umbrellas were placed in the Fox Motion Park. Plans for a new Bubble Blast area were developed.
“We are at a breaking point,” said Director of Operations Camille Coller. “Because the museum has become more financially secure over the last few years, it is time for us to take that next step to be a serious contender” as a destination place for children and families.
Comprehensive plans were developed for re-imagining the entire museum. Community members and schools were interviewed for ideas. A master plan is in the works.
SciTech Hands On Museum has stayed close to the vision of one man and has become a community center where people of all ages can learn about science, technology, engineering, arts, and math through creative, interactive activities and educational programs.
As we enter a new decade, SciTech Hands On Museum invites YOU to become part of the story: what will you imagine, explore, and discover today?