Ask a kid in the Harrisburg area about Whitaker Center and, nine times out of 10, they’ve been there on a field trip.
They might tell you about their favorite attractions, the Carnival of Health or the Midtown Market. But with Whitaker Center’s recent renovations, it’s time for children to take a trip back and find some new favorite activities along with the classics.
Coming in the same year as its 20th anniversary, Whitaker Center last month unveiled its new STEM Design Studios and updated KidsPlace in the Harsco Science Center. For four weeks, these spaces were temporarily closed in order for new carpet to be laid, walls to be painted and new exhibits to be installed. In early November, they re-opened to the public.
“I am excited about the future of the space,” said Chief Operating Officer Meghan Clark.
In the KidsPlace, little learners (ages 0 to 5) can read under the new Storybook tree, drop a line in the fishin’ hole table or work on a project at the mini picnic tables. The tiniest guests can crawl and play in the gated Baby Garden.
Clark added that, by the spring of 2020, an oversized Operation game will be installed, and the existing ambulance attraction will be refurbished. In the fall of 2020, a large interactive pinball game will be added. All of the exhibits are designed by Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.
Heading downstairs, you’ll see the same giant orb hanging from the ceiling. After some system updates, Science On a Sphere—a global display system—has reopened to give guests an even more educational experience with the Earth and its weather.
On the same level, the once tucked-away, closed-off classrooms have been transformed into the bright, open STEM Design Studios. Kids ages 6 to 12 can participate in a number of activities, including 3D doodle pens, introductory coding, robotics and iPad programs, many of which can be downloaded on children’s own devices at home.
“They’re allowed to explore, and they’re allowed to do trial and error,” Director of Education Jessica Rice said. “All of these problem-solving skills make the kiddos lifelong learners.”
Liz Rubendall and her 4th-grade son Matthew visited Whitaker Center for the first time on the Harsco Science Center’s re-opening day. Matthew, who attends a STEM-focused school in Reading, was no stranger to these kinds of activities.
“This age is so into technology,” Liz said. “I try to encourage him to do different hands-on things.”
Rice sees the lab activities as a way to supplement what kids are learning in school and at home. With the push for career readiness she has seen lately, the more STEM, the better, she said.
While general admission visitors can enjoy the studios, they will also be available for field trip groups, Girl Scout badge workshops and other weekend classes. There are over 20 summer camps offered for youth on topics around food science, robotics, theater and music.
Girls in STEM is one of the programs offered to students interested in hands-on learning. This fills a void in a field where Rice sees women as grossly underrepresented.
With the new labs, Clark said that Whitaker Center will be able to offer programming to a larger number of students. Part of the motivation for the renovations was the decrease in attendance the center was experiencing. Clark expects to see an increase now.
“STEM is very hot and very necessary,” Clark said. “The space is going to be really great for accommodating that in the region.”
The new exhibits were just part of the updates to Whitaker Center, which also installed a video wall that includes 49 plasma screens, funded by a grant from the Dauphin County commissioners. A grand entrance to the Science Center is also being built.
A gateway to their traveling exhibit area has been added. This space is where the Whitaker Wonderland Holiday attraction is held from now until the beginning of January. Parents and kids can slide on the sock-skating rink, battle in the indoor snowball pit or build a snowman with dry stacking boulders.
The total cost of the renovations is $400,000. Much of the funding came through the Gary and Sylvie St. Hilaire Foundation. Whitaker Center is still looking for supporters and donors to help with the STEM lab costs.
The new exhibits have already garnered the attention of first-time visitors and long-time members of Whitaker Center. To Clark, the buzz coming from parents and kids just adds to the standing the center has held in the community for years.
“There’s no other place that does it like the Whitaker Center,” she said.
Whitaker Center is located at 222 Market St., Harrisburg and is open Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, visit www.whitakercenter.org.