The new $25 million EcoDiscovery Center at the
For all the bells and whistles it includes for the entertainment of youngsters - from an otter habitat to an indoor airboat simulator - the purpose of the new building is education.
"Our mission is to be a pathway to learning and science," said museum CEO Kim Cavendish.
At a "difficult time for museums" around the country, 80 percent of the cost of the EcoDisovery Center was borne by private donors, Cavendish said.
"This represents the fact that the business community sees the value of the museum as a source of culture, education and science," she said.
Much of the science to be found in the new wing deals with the effects of climate change on Florida's flora, fauna, water and weather. For Cavendish, no matter how hot the topic, these are problems in need of a solution, and presenting the facts is the first step.
"We are trying to stir up issues that are important and bring them to the forefront," she said.
The second floor of the EcoDiscovery Center is as good a place as any to start.
Off a long hallway overlooking the otter enclosure, the Mangurian Foundation Lifelong Learning Center is a bright, airy venue for four fully-equipped labs where museum staff will offer hands-on instruction in the sciences to everyone from field-trip students to overnight campers.
At a time when school funding is percarious, museum officials expect the labs to fill an important educational niche.
"Most schools do not have these kinds of laboratory resources," said museum spokeswoman Marlene Janetos. "We expect them to be very popular."
But science education does not have to be all dry lab work.
"Science is good. Math is lovely. Nature is worth protecting," said Maris Ensing, as he stood in his familiar spot beneath the
Ensing and co-workers from his California-based Mad Systems audio-visual group spent weeks installing and adjusting the airboat simulator, which offers vivid five-minute trips through the River of Grass without leaving the museum. To achieve the necessary synchronization of sound, motion and visual, the crew had to take several real airboat rides into the Everglades.
Research, Ensing explained, but fun, too. Even when an 11-foot alligator propped its head up on their boat.
"I have never seen anyplace like it in my life," the
native said of the Everglades. "It's flatter than Holland, which is hard to believe. Everywhere you look the horizon is unspoiled, unbroken."
Technology has been a lifelong passion, Ensing said, and Mad Systems has built simulator rides all over the globe, from Euro Disney to Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan, and, earlier this year, a tornado simulator at the
Along with all the travel and theme-park rides, the creative problem solving of reproducing spot-on simulations of real experiences is a challenge that offers its own rewards, Ensing said.
"If I can motivate 100 kids to choose a life working in science, that would be cool," Ensing said. "And if 10 of them succeed, I'd be very happy."