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iLabs: Micro World iLab & the Idea Germ Explosion – Is it TODAY?

February 14, 2015

The Explosion of an Idea Germ — Is It Today????

It will start quietly enough, with little fanfare in the wintery days of the early New Year. It will start, as it has from the very first day, quietly and unobtrusively.  But then the day will suddenly ramp up, the visitors will arrive and the moment will be there – that moment envisioned years ago in the mind of a visionary leader – when the 100,000th visitor steps into the Micro World Investigate Lab.  And it will be a moment to pause and celebrate: where it started, what it took, and what it has blossomed, or exploded into.

The Micro World Investigate Lab, along with the Visual World and Natural World Investigate Labs, and the entire Nature Research Center, began as the germ of an idea in the mind of Dr. Betsy Bennett years ago. Its germination proceeded as the building went up and staff experimented with various ways to make these rooms a one-of-a-kind, wow-you-from-the-moment-you-walk-in, celebration of hands-on science. Now, less than 3 years after opening, the Micro World Investigate Lab is readying to welcome its 100,000th visitor.

Exactly what is this “explosion” in the room?

The Micro World opened with two table activities – micropipetting, which was always meant to be a temporary activity for opening night, and DNA extraction.  The counters held a fish tank, a terrarium, some protozoan cultures and some fungi experiments.  A brand new research microscope sat off to one side. And the room had just two people to run it – Christy Flint and Deb Bailey.

There were a few classes – Microscopic Life, Cell Cycle, Photosynthesis, Transpiration – and a mind map: a crazy color-coded drawing with criss-crossing lines, high-lighted circles, and scribbled notes, of all the dreams for the room.

Today, we have a full room bursting with over 12 different table activities, covering topics such as ELISA/Immunology, DNA extraction, PCR, DNA code reading, transcription, translation, sequencing, and  protein synthesis, Chytrid fungus, Fish Medicine, Cell counting & water quality.

Counters now also hold an interactive bioluminescent plankton activity, class research projects, cultures of pond invertebrates, plankton and duckweed, and a brand new research level cell bioreactor that will be used in classes and as a working exhibit for the public to use.

Younger scientists can learn about plant moisture needs with “Fred and Ethel,” and there’s puzzles and the “Find the Tardigrade” activity.

The walls are lined with models of blood cells, human and animal organs and body systems. Room shades depict microscopic life, and two 55-inch TVs broadcast microscopic images of a wide range of specimens. In addition, the EVOS research microscope is always available for use by visitors to view live protozoans.

Grants by Biogen Idec Foundation and IMLS have funded extra staff, research equipment, expanded classes, and programs with researchers inside and outside the Museum.  Topics include, various human body systems, homeostasis, DNA electrophoresis, PCR, DNA sequencing and bioinformatics, Proteomics, soil and human microbiology, Drug Development, epidemiology, and a brand new series of chemistry classes.  All classes are available to schools, homeschool students, and the public, and any classes available to the public schools are curriculum-correlated. Grades served are 5th through early college.

The grant has also allowed the lab to bring in almost 1000 students last year from under-served counties, by providing funds for transportation to schools that could not afford to come otherwise.  This year Biogen Idec Foundation grant funds are allowing us to increase our reach by also expanding into the after-school outreach programs with local groups such as the YMCA and the Boys’ Club, among others, and soon, distance-learning programs.

Thursday night programs, such as the Science of Bread-Making, Yogurt-making science and the Chemistry of Twinkies have become popular, and the lab also does a once-a-month board game night for all ages.  There are also 2-hour lab public lab classes on Saturday mornings, such as Spy Chemistry of the American Revolution.

So in view of all of the change, what does all of this mean to us, the people at the door greeting each of those visitors?  We are as EXCITED AS EVER!!  And while maybe the “fanfare of the moment” won’t include fireworks (though with our chemistry classes, we can probably conjure up a lab-safe version of something extraordinary!) or balloons or marching bands, maybe the moment will just be a quiet reflection of joy in each of our hearts, a reflection on where we started and what we’ve come to. It will be the acknowledgement that the idea germ has in fact germinated, sprouted, and is growing daily into an amazing thriving plant. And it will be a reflection that our success is like that of every department here at the Museum : quiet (though in the case of Bugfest, maybe not so quiet)  success in advancing their mission to excite people with their joy of science, something this Museum has been doing for over 100 years.

Every day that visitors walk into the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, whether the NEC, the NRC, the Investigate Labs or the Windows on the World, they are walking into a place ALIVE and EVOLVING as it enthusiastically brings science into their hearts and into their hands.

We hope to see all of you soon, as we look forward to greeting the next 100,000 people.  There will be just as much if not more enthusiasm because each day is a new opportunity to reach out, and a new topic to showcase to you all.

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