Soggy potato chips can be science.
That’s what a group of 9- and 10-year-olds were learning Monday at Impression 5 Science Center in downtown Lansing, engaged in an experiment about acidity using chips, water and vinegar.
The young scientists were there for a day camp during their spring break, but hands-on activities happen daily at the science center, which marks its 50th birthday this month. To celebrate, the center is looking back on the past half-century by soliciting memories from the community and raising funds that will see it through the next 50 years.
Impression 5 first opened in April of 1972. Founder Marilynne Eichinger wanted to provide a space for kids to use all five senses to learn about the world around them.
That objective hasn’t changed.
“The mission of Impression 5 has always been about hands-on interaction between science and the arts,” said Executive Director Erik Larson. “It’s the way that we achieve that mission that has obviously changed over the years.”
The science center has about 30,000 square feet of exhibit space on two floors. The first floor of the museum is currently occupied by an interactive traveling exhibit. Impression 5 hosts at least two temporary exhibits a year designed to bring new people into the space.
The current exhibit, “Wild Kratt’s Creature Power,” is aimed at children ages 3 to 9 and teaches about animals and their habitats. The exhibit, on loan from the Minnesota Children’s Museum, is based on the popular PBS Kids television series.
In June, a new exhibit on manufacturing called “How People Make Things” will open.
The second floor of the center features permanent exhibits that explore different types of science, including energy, light, nuclear physics, fluid dynamics, and an exhibit about the mouth, which encapsulates oral health, anatomy and linguistics. By early next year, the center plans to add a new exhibit on renewable energy.
“It’s really important to have a really diverse set of content areas so people can choose what they want to get engaged in,” Larson said. “It gives us these opportunities for a child to connect to something they’re interested in.”
The center wants to continue to invest in new exhibits, both permanent and traveling. There’s also the desire to increase educational programming by hosting labs.
Lansing resident Martin Pope, who goes by Uncle Jamz, stopped by the center Monday looking for programming available to his wife’s grandson. She wants to take the 3-year-old to Impression 5 to encourage his curiosity.
“We bought him blocks, and he’s got a robot already,” Pope said. “He’s really into all that.”
The connection between grandparent and grandchild can be very special, Pope said, citing his own love for baking inspired by his grandmother. He expects a flair for science to sprout from his wife’s relationship with her grandson.
“He’s all about his nana,” he said. “They’re two peas in a pod.”
Building memories and encouraging curiosity are critical to Impression 5’s mission, Larson said. Long before he became executive director, he volunteered at the center as a teenager.
“It’s been one of my favorite places my entire life,” he said.
As part of its 50-year celebration, the center is collecting stories about people’s experiences at Impression 5. To share a story, fans can email Larson at [email protected] or by calling 517-485-8116 and dialing extension 143.
“Two and a half generations of people have come through here, so you get people who visited as kids bringing their own children or their grandchildren,” Larson said. “That’s a pretty special moment.”
I-5 aims to raise $5 million and reach new museumgoers
This month, Impression 5 will launch a campaign focused on raising $5 million to fund renovations at the center as it looks ahead to the next 50 years.
Expanding and improving the campus is one of the goals of the campaign.
“We want to continue to adaptively use this building, which was built in the 1840s, and go beyond the inside of the building in this next phase,” Larson said. “We’re right in the heart of downtown, but wouldn’t it be cool if the science center that was in the heart of the capital city looked like it should be there?”
Sustainability is another area of focus for the center. During the next 12 months, Impression 5 hopes to put $1 million into an endowment to fund the center long-term.
One major focus will be expanding the center’s reach in the community.
“What we mean to people continues to shift and change,” said Micaela Balzer, director of innovation and learning at Impression 5. “We are consistently innovating that experience to try to figure out what fits the audience, where the children are at, what the science content is.”
Looking ahead, Larson said Impression 5 needs to better understand which groups it’s serving well and which groups it’s not.
“Using this 50th as a launchpad to think about how we’re going to engage the community in the next 50 years as opposed to just celebrating the past and having a party, which would be very easy to do,” Larson said. “We want to do something bigger than that.”
Many assume finances are the most significant barrier to accessing the science center, but that’s not the case, Larson said.
“A big barrier for STEM education is identity,” he said. “Kids come in and they look at science or anything, and if they don’t see someone who looks like them, they don’t think it’s for them”
During the pandemic, Larson said the team at Impression 5 spent a lot of time on diversity training and, as a result, launched a project to highlight scientists who are part of underrepresented groups.
The center also wants to feature practicing scientists in its exhibits.
In the “Smash” exhibit, which teaches about nuclear physics, scientists working at Michigan State University’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams are highlighted in videos.
“We’re demystifying the scientist,” Larson said. “They tell the story of where they’re from, the work they do and the training they received. You can actually hear them talk and understand what’s going on at the FRIB and what’s going on with them as a person and start to identify with that.”
How a hands-on museum rebounds from the pandemic
Like many businesses that rely on foot traffic, Impression 5 had to adapt during the pandemic.
“Everybody that had a business that was dependent on people walking through the door was hurting,” Larson said.
One new program Impression 5 developed was providing STEM kits for families enrolled in Head Start, a federal early childhood education program. The center also introduced live, virtual programming for local schools. Both are programs Larson would like to see continue.
“We can find a way to meet people where they’re at that gives us a new opportunity to create stronger relationships and serve the mission of the science center,” he said.
Before the pandemic, the center had about 170,000 visitors a year. Last year, there were 46,000.
Recent numbers of visitors have been encouraging, though, Larson said. This past weekend, there were 1,100 visitors on Saturday and 800 visitors on Sunday.
“Our hope is that we can reconnect with people that haven’t been able to visit, but also use this moment to connect with families that are new to the area to make sure that they understand that Impression 5 is for them,” Larson said.
As the science center plans for its future, Larson sees it becoming a centerpiece of downtown activity.
“Places like Impression 5 — zoos, libraries, parks, art galleries — all play this huge role in creating the cultural fabric of a community,” he said. “Impression 5 has an opportunity and responsibility to the community to be a point of pride.”
The challenge of what comes next is exciting for Larson, who wants to keep Impression 5 on the “precipice of reinventing.”
“I don’t have a clear vision of what Impression 5 looks like 20 years from now, but I know it won’t be the same as today,” he said. “And I know that we’re excited for that shift, and I’m excited to keep pushing forward.”
How to go: Impression 5 is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.Thursday through Sunday at 200 Museum Drive in Lansing. To learn more about upcoming events, exhibits and admission fees, visit the center’s website at impression5.org.
Contact reporter Elena Durnbaugh at (517) 231-9501 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @ElenaDurnbaugh.