Mason Geary, of Marlborough, arranges magnets while visiting the EcoTarium last Friday with his aunt and uncle. (Photo by Noah R. Bombard)

By Noah R. Bombard

From the temporary entrance on the bottom floor of the EcoTarium you can tell there’s something going on two floors up. You can see the plastic sheeting and smell the fresh coat of paint. But the work going on up there is more than just a makeover. It’s the foundation for the EcoTarium’s future – a foundation that is set to take the science center into what in 2025 will mark its third century. You don’t have to wait that long to get a glimpse, though.

The EcoTarium is scheduled to unveil part of the first phase of a multimillion dollar project this summer that will add an entire floor of interactive exhibit space dedicated to weather and mountain habitat. When you walk in the reopened top-floor entrance you’ll be greeted by a giant replica of Mount Washington stretching up to the center’s ceiling. You’ll be able to step into a hurricane simulator and feel the force of 75-mph winds. A climbing wall will give you a hands-on feel for a mountain-top terrain and small domed biospheres will simulate various ecosystems. Step out onto the thick glass floor at the edge of the hall and you can look straight down suspended over two stories of exhibit space. And that’s just the entrance.

The $8.2 million project under way at the EcoTarium is not a renovation. It’s a reimagining of the center’s core mission to bring people together with nature and science.

“I think they’re going to be blown away,” says EcoTarium President Stephen Pitcher.

The work on the center’s top floor, which served as the main entrance until construction began last fall, is only part of a 15-year plan that comprises the first phase. When that top entrance reopens in a few weeks, visitors will be able to see the work in progress leading up to July, when Pitcher says they hope the top floor will be complete.

The work has proceeded with little more than curious questions from visitors. That’s primarily due to the fact that top floor didn’t previously house much actual exhibit space. It was mostly just an entrance with access to the gift shop. That’s about to change in a pretty dramatic way.

The Alden Digital Planetarium.

The Alden Digital Planetarium.

Building for the Future

Last Friday, Mark And Angela Setevdemio peered through microscopes at one of the center’s interactive science exhibits unaware of multi-million dollar project going on a few floors up.

The Ashburnham couple took the day off to come here with their nephew. They were excited to hear about the work. For them, the EcoTarium’s hands-on science and nature exhibits are a huge draw, as is the convenience.

“We had that February vacation experience at the [New England] Acquarium in Boston and you had to go through three tents just to get to the door,” Angela Stevdemio says.

There are no tented lines to get into the EcoTarium, though on summer weekends the center can get pretty packed. It’s easy to think of Worcester attractions like this as one of the city’s little special secrets, but the fact is the EcoTarium has been steadily growing. The center had 1,700 members when the phase one campaign began two years ago and now they’re up to 2,100. They’ve seen an 11 percent increase in members coming to the center and the EcoTarium pulled in 130,000 visitors last year – more, Pitcher says, than any other museum or center in the city.

“My goal is to get us up to 200,000,” Pitcher says. “We have the capacity to do that. We should be there.”

Of course, that doesn’t touch the kind of numbers the big museums and science centers in Boston tap, but then again the EcoTarium is drawing from a different population. Boston is a tourist destination bringing people from all over the world. Worcester pulls from the region.

“The top 20 zip codes for us start in Natick and go right down Route 9 going west,” Pitcher says.

What that means for the EcoTarium is that the center needs the repeat visitor. That means constantly changing exhibits and offering new things. Pitcher says one of the ways the center has been doing has been working with the Worcester School Department.

About 30 percent of the center’s visitors are school groups.

“We try to partner with the schools and say, ‘Look, you guys do the formal teaching and learning much better than we can, but we can do the informal part,’” Pitcher says.

That informal part has some formal facets to it, however. Local educators have a say in some of the exhibits the EcoTarium offers as well as choosing the features for the digital planetarium – another aspect of the science center that saw an upgrade in recent years to the tune of $750,000. But all of the exhibits, from the reproduction of pond ecosystems to the planetarium are aimed at making that classroom and science book learning leap off the page and into real life.

“One of the teachers who recently came to the EcoTarium said, “Wow, I sit there with my book and I try to teach this and I can come here and watch it happening right in front of me,” Pitcher said.

That’s the reaction the EcoTarium is looking for.

“What I like about what I see is families engaged,” Pitcher says. “That they’re working together. It isn’t always the kids doing something with the parents standing back. You’ll see very often that they’ll be doing something in parallel together.”

phoWWecotarium11_041711Of course, for the past several decades, one of the EcoTarium’s prime attractions – and its iconic image – is that of Kenda, the center’s polar bear. Pitcher says they believe that at 27 Kenda is the oldest polar bear born into captivity. She shared exhibit space with her mother Ursa Minor until July 2001 when Ursa died at 36.

“Kenda might live another 10 years, but we have to start thinking about what will come after her,” Pitcher says.

There are no plans to replace Kenda with another polar bear. The science center animal exhibits are all animals that cannot live in the wild – they either have injuries or, as in Kenda’s case, were born into captivity. The polar bear space works for one bear, Pitcher says, “but you tend to get two or three of them now, which we’d need a larger size and I don’t know that that’s really in our mission.”

What Pitcher says they do know is that the EcoTarium needs to keep changing.

“If you think you’ve seen it all before, wait four weeks and come back and you’ll find something new,” Pitcher says.

With the current changes being only the first phase of a five-phase plan to add to the science center’s exhibits and infrastructure, the center is working to ensure those changes are ongoing.

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