In the late 1980s, a group of local officials sought to build a cultural and science center for the growing Harrisburg area. They drafted a plan that included a fine arts center, a science museum and a theater.
Finally, in 1999, the distinctive-looking, $52.7 million Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts opened its doors in the heart of downtown Harrisburg.
Fast-forward to 2019, and this month, Whitaker Center celebrates its 20th birthday. The center, which includes the Harsco Science Center, the Select Medical Digital Cinema and the Sunoco Theater, has taken root and blossomed over that time.
Jeanne Schmedlen, who was involved in the creation of Whitaker Center, said that the cultural hub is central to the greater Harrisburg community.
“The mayor at the time, Stephen Reed, called this the crown jewel of Harrisburg when he cut the ribbon [at the grand opening],” Schmedlen said. “And often, still, people refer to it as the crown jewel.”
As Whitaker Center turns 20, President and CEO Ted Black is looking to the future, focused on modernization and expanding the center’s digital presence.
“We have some big plans and big things underway,” he said. “It’s just challenging getting through these transition phases, where you wish you had a magic wand and everything was built and up and changed.”
Renovations will both expand and modernize exhibits in the Harsco Science Center and Kids’ Place, providing a more enjoyable experience for children.
Kids’ Place will undergo some of the more dramatic changes. Not only will old favorites like the ambulance and the Midtown Market receive a new look, but visitors can expect the number of exhibits to double. Renovations will be implemented in three stages, with the first stage beginning Nov. 1. When complete, the revamped Kids’ Place will be 30-percent larger with new exhibits, such a life-sized Operation game.
Changes to the science center include a new grand entrance, which Black hopes will help to foster a sense of arrival and excitement as visitors eagerly await their entrance. Exhibits will receive a face-lift, too, with computers and software in the “Forces of Nature” exhibit set for upgrades, and some spaces may be reallocated.
Beyond the physical changes, Whitaker Center will have more technology-based programs to teach children crucial computer skills like coding. Classroom space, currently hidden behind plain doors in the science center, will be renovated for the first time since Whitaker opened to make it more accessible to interactive learning.
“We’re in the process of recruiting for a coding educator,” Black said. “Learning coding now is like learning Spanish 30 years ago. It’s a language you should know. And even if you don’t go in the computer direction, it’s also a way of thinking, a way of problem-solving.”
The “Surgery Live!” program for older students will continue in the Select Medical Digital Theater, which received a new Barco Smart Laser projector in July, providing a crystal-clear look into Hershey Medical Center’s operation rooms. “Surgery Live!” aims to pique interest in the medical field, allowing students to watch actual surgical procedures and ask questions.
Because the center offers programs for people of all ages, Deb Wagner, the communications manager at Whitaker Center, said that she enjoys watching local children grow up through the center.
“We celebrated 10 years of having ‘Surgery Live!’ last year,” she said. “We had a student who’s now a nurse who attended ‘Surgery Live!’ on a field trip. We get to watch a less-than 5-year-old grow through Whitaker Center and have a career in STEM. It’s incredible.”
Board member Gus Schmedlen said that Whitaker Center is working with Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, using state-of-the-art experimental learning design to rework exhibits and learning activities. Educational activities on science, technology, engineering and math will teach children how to contextualize the skills they’re learning in a larger community setting.
“Instead of just learning these isolated skills, they’re being enhanced with these so-called global competencies, or non-cognitive skills, which make students who learn them and the teachers far more flexible and adaptive,” Schmedlen said. “So, when the next disruptive technology comes out, these students will be able to navigate that using both the cognitive as well as the non-cognitive skills.”
Whitaker Center focuses on making an impact in children’s lives. During the 2018 fiscal year, it welcomed 11,600 students through the STEM scholarship program, up 2,000 students from the year before. It also has programming for underserved students, like the “Girls in STEM” initiative.
“[‘Girls in STEM’] allows us to bring in fourth- to eighth-grade girls for a weeklong discovery day camp that’s all focused on STEM for $50,” Wagner said. “So, it really provides an opportunity for an underserved population to come to the center. They get free play in the center, they get directed science, technology, engineering and math. They build roller coasters, they program robots to follow paths through the science center.”
However, the fun isn’t only for kids, as Whitaker Center has programs for adults, as well. Events like “Story Slam,” an acoustic singer-songwriter competition and sampling sessions of local beers and wines allow the over-21 crowd to join in the fun.
Looking to the future, Black wants to deepen Whitaker Center’s relationship with other local business and nonprofits, including nearby Harrisburg University, while continuing to foster an environment that supports new ideas.
“Fortunately, we have a really dedicated staff that believes in everything we’re doing here,” Black said. “I think that’s in the DNA of the building. This is a unique physical structure that not many places have, regardless of the size of the city. Everyone is excited to be a part of that.”
Whitaker Center is located at 222 Market St., Harrisburg. For more information about the center and upcoming events, visit www.whitakercenter.org.