On Saturday, my kids and I drove to Johnson City for the grand opening of the Hill Country Science Mill, a new regional science center. We spent all day, and my kids were totally absorbed with playing and learning. We’ll definitely be back soon. I recommend that you plan a trip to the Science Mill soon, too.
To get to Johnson City from San Antonio, head north on Highway 281 for about 50 miles. In the heart of town, turn left on Highway 290, and the Science Mill (map) is about five blocks on your left. The Science Mill is hard to miss; its row of silos towers above the road and shows the building’s history as a grist mill and cotton gin.
The Science Mill’s exhibits celebrate the beauty of science and nature, and that makes them appealing to a wide range of ages, from young children to adults. The sweet spot is probably middle school, but my kids (ages 7 and 5) were thoroughly engaged and not frustrated.
My son, F.T., said that his favorite exhibit was the molecule builder. On a table-sized touch screen, he selected atoms of different elements and combined them to make a variety of chemicals. The computer showed which chemicals he had created, and reported on what their properties were. We started with water but quickly ventured into volcanic gasses and rocket fuel. Read more about Chemical Reactions and more exhibits here.
My daughter, G.N., said that her favorite part was designing her own robot avatar. As we checked in, G.N. got an avatar passport card with a QR code. Then, she went to a kiosk and customized her avatar with purple on her body and a flower on her head. As we went through the museum, G.N. found more kiosks; she ran up to each one, and held up her card so that her robot avatar would appear and tell her more about the exhibit. She had the opportunity to select which exhibits were her favorites, and take a selfie with her robot at the end. At home, we logged in to the Explorer Zone for more learning resources on her favorite exhibits.
The beauty of the Science Mill moved me. The building is thoughtfully restored, and each silo houses an exhibit that makes good use of the tall, narrow space. The first silo houses the Cell Phone Disco: every time a visitor uses her cell phone to send a text or make a call, sensors detect the invisible electromagnetic waves and turn them into visible lights on the wall; see a video.
Another silo has been converted into a Fractalarium. The ceiling is covered with color-changing LEDs and silicone sculptures that look like Romanesco cauliflower. Learn more about fractals in this post in this post from Alamo City Moms Blog.
Dig In! is a sand table with a twist: sensors detect the height of the sand and project a colorful, ever-changing topographic map on top of it. My friend Melanie of ¿Qué Means What? said Dig In! was her family’s favorite exhibit.
The Science Mill invites you to keep learning at home. The Maker Stations are carts with projects such as building circuits out of fruit, or attaching a microscope to a cell phone camera. The projects on the maker carts will change, but they are all meant to be DIY-able.
The Critter Bots exhibit lets kids control an animatronic longhorn, rattlesnake, and armadillo. The touch screens use a version of Scratch to program the animals. Kids can continue learning about computer programming by logging in to Scratch at home or at school, or at an event like San Antonio Youth Code Jam.
The Science Mill also has a sense of playfulness. One of the silos houses a Van de Graaff generator, creating demonstrations of flying hair and zapping lightning; see a video. For kids who love cause-and-effect, there’s the Magnetic Ball Wall in the Young Explorer Zone, and the outdoor kinetic sculpture.
Here are some practical details to help you plan your trip to the Science Mill. We brought a picnic lunch and ate at a park across the street, but there is also the Lady Bird Lane Cafe on site. Near the cafe is a toddler area for kids ages three and under. When we needed a sit-down break, we caught a movie in the 3D theater. There’s a museum store with clever science kits and toys. The museum has lots of indoor space, but if your kids still need to get the wiggles out, there’s also a long, outdoor space by the creek.
When planning your trip, you might consider adding a visit to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. The park’s visitors’ center is near the Science Mill; the LBJ Ranch is further west on Highway 290. Your kids can sign up to be Junior Rangers.
Check the website for up-to-date operating hours before you go, but for now, the Science Mill is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Adult admission is $8, with discounts for children, students, military, seniors, and groups. The Science Mill offer programs for field trips and homeschool classes, and summer camps are in the works.
Have you been to the Hill Country Science Mill yet? Please leave a comment and share: What was your favorite exhibit?