Next year, Auburn residents won't have to drive two hours to get to the nearest children's science museum because there will be one within the boundaries of their community.
AO Discover, or the Auburn-Opelika Children's Hands-On Science Center, will open its doors as early as spring 2020 and bring interactive science and STEM exhibits to the area, though the museum's exact location within the area has yet to be revealed.
"We can't wait to let everyone know," said Katie Murrah, founder of AO Discover and former educator. "We are finalizing a little bit of paperwork, so we cannot release that until we have it finalized. We do know where the location will be, and we're very excited about it."
Adjacent to the museum will be a new preschool, and the state's first STEM preschool, Auburn Day School. Murrah said it will open before the museum, in "early 2020," and will be for students 12 months to 5 years old.
"Students can actually interact with AO Discover; that's huge," Murrah said.
Other ways to engage with AO Discover will be through field trips, STEM camps held over the summers and for holidays, teacher workshops and self-guided tours for families and community members.
The science museum will feature permanent exhibits and space for traveling exhibits. Murrah also has plans to do pop-up experiences throughout the community.
Permanent exhibits will include things like a Lego Duplo racetrack, where families can build vehicles and race them down three tracks, and pneumatic tubes, or air tubes that kids can zoom scarves and balls through, controlling where they land. There will also be a glass art wall on which families can flex their creative muscles and a hands-on construction area, among many other interactive exhibits, some of which will be hands-on instructional explorations tied to Alabama State Department of Education standards.
"We're looking at some really dynamic, dramatic play exhibits that would be unique to our science center, that people have never seen before and that are tied to some local businesses here that would like to bring something specific to showcase the science behind what they do," Murrah said. "Then, we have a lot of really creative ideas involving virtual reality, involving some kind of never-before-seen walk-through exhibits, but we are just really waiting to approach the perfect donor that will be excited and want to partner with us on these."
Murrah said she believes the museum will foster learning for all ages and help young children build a strong mental foundation.
"Research has shown that the earlier you can get your hands on STEM and the earlier you can be exposed to critical-thinking skills and problem-solving skills, the better off you are," she said. "What we're wanting to do is set a firm foundation for the youngest members of our community, but then we want to encourage all ages to continue to learn, because we know learning doesn't end when school ends. You want to learn the rest of your life and you want to be able to grow and increase your knowledge.
"We want everyone to have those 'ah-ha' moments."
Murrah, her husband, Hank, and their 4-year-old daughter, Rosalind, moved to Auburn four years ago after Hank was hired as a statistics professor at Auburn University. Auburn quickly felt like home to the family, who has roots in the South. Murrah is from Mississippi and Hank from Alabama.
"He actually got the job offer to come to Auburn before our daughter was 12 hours old. We were in the hospital; it was wild," Murrah said. "But we wanted to move back down to the South ... I think it feels really familiar to us. I think we fit right in, and we absolutely love it."
Murrah got her undergraduate degree from Mississippi State, and a master's in education from the University of Virginia. She taught as a gifted specialist at an elementary school and had taught in enrichment programs in the summer and on Saturdays while completing her master's. After five years of teaching at the elementary level, she moved to an administrative role at a private school in Charlottesville, Virginia, and helped make decisions that moved the school forward.
"All of that plays a part in me wanting to start AO Discover," Murrah said of her education background. She also said that as a parent, she has tried a lot of family and educational activities the area has to offer, and feels like a children's museum will bring more opportunities to the community.
"This could be something that would offer an opportunity for families to come together and experience interactive science in a place where the community could connect and engage together," she said. "It's also a way we can support the community. We really want AO Discover to be a big influence on this growing STEM culture."
So far, community involvement has not been a problem. AO Discover hosted a Harvest Discovery Experience event last weekend that brought out more than 500 people who enjoyed outdoor activities by Murrah, her team and a variety of community sponsors. Ticket sales supported AO Discover.
"We’ve been really stunned by how much support and enthusiasm we’ve received for AO Discover in a very short time," Murrah said.
The museum's features will be rolled out in phases, and field trips will be one of the first interactions offered. Murrah said a relationship with local schools — public, private and home — will be a priority of AO Discover.
"We absolutely want to build a very strong relationship with Auburn schools and Opelika schools, both public and private, and home schools so everyone can benefit and so we can support their needs, also," she said. "We hope to have some school leaders involved with our board of directors."
Leading up to the opening of Auburn Day School and AO Discover, Murrah teased more events. She said to definitely look out for open houses for the preschool, though no dates have been set.