MODS' New EcoDiscovery Center
Spotlights Florida's Unique Environment
Interactive exhibits make ecology and conservation
By Holly Strawbridge
If you haven't visited the Museum of Discovery and Science (MODS) in Fort Lauderdale recently, put it on your ” To Do List” for 2012. The museum's exciting new EcoDiscovery Center is not just for kids. Its colorful, mostly interactive exhibits on ecology and conservation engage and entertain visitors of all ages. The new, $25-million addition focuses on various aspects of South Florida's climate, geology, flora and fauna, using the lens of environmental stewardship to help museum-goers better understand and appreciate our natural resources.
“We have created a wonderful experience for families. We don't preach. We raise issues, present facts and let people come to their own conclusions about the things that interest and excite them,” says MODS' CEO Kim Cavendish.
Florida as a state of change
The central message of the EcoDiscovery Center exhibits is that Florida is in a constant state of change. Over the eons, our land mass has grown and shrunk. Fossils of prehistoric sea turtles prove that Florida once was covered by oceans. But Indian mounds found in the Gulf also indicate that at one time, our state was much bigger than it is today. These facts are driven home by a life-sized replica of a 50-foot shark that used to ply Florida's waters, a sand pit seeded with shark teeth and plaster casts of fossils.
Water remains an essential component of South Florida's environment, and multiple exhibits illustrate how our aquifer is filled, used and recharged. Rain recharges Lake Okeechobee and the aquifers from which we draw our drinking water.
“We once thought the Everglades was a useless swamp, but we now know it has a critical role in Florida’s hydrologic cycle, preserving fresh water for our state,” says Cavendish.
Museum visitors gain a better understanding of the Everglades through an extensive exhibit that includes a seven-minute ride on an airboat simulator, complete with visuals, sound and wind. While waiting in line to board the ride, visitors enjoy wall exhibits illustrating the various environments found in the Everglades, along with its diversity of animals and birds. Once visitors are aboard the airboat, a film shot by an award-winning cinematographer introduces them to the third largest national park in the continental U.S. Most leave the exhibit exhilarated and enthusiastic about this unusual River of Grass − and that's just how MODS wants them to feel.
“Once you experience the Everglades, you care about it and want to protect it,” says Cavendish.
Know your wind
It would be hard to talk about South Florida's climate without discussing hurricanes. MODS takes an unusual approach that allows visitors to step inside a booth and experience hurricane-force winds first-hand. In other weather exhibits, a tornado forms before your eyes and lightning flashes. A computerized globe allows you to see weather patterns and pollution anywhere in the world, reinforcing the global nature of weather. And just for fun, visitors can step in front of a camera and play weather forecaster in a replica of WSVN Channel 7's weather studio.
MODS has made quantum leaps since it opened in the historic New River Inn in 1977. With Cavendish at the helm, and thanks to support from a dedicated board and a bond issue from the City of Fort Lauderdale, the Discovery Center soon began amassing funds to build its own building. On November 21, 1992, the $36.2-million Museum of Discovery and Science and IMAX theater opened in its present location, and quickly became the most well-attended museum in Florida.
MODS was hot − and it became even hotter.
Within a few years, the board started discussing the need for expansion, but lacked a clear vision. Then Cavendish, who had left the museum in 1995, was rehired in 2002, and discussions took a serious turn. A strategic plan was created, and a $4.5-million seed grant for environmental education from the State of Florida determined the direction the museum would take. A budget of $25 million was set. Spurred by AutoNation's $3 million gift to name the IMAX theater − a gift advocated by Board Chairman Jon Ferrando, executive vice president and general counsel of AutoNation, and approved by Mike Jackson, chairman and CEO of AutoNation − fundraising began in earnest.
Meanwhile, Cavendish and her staff were planning an expansion that would tie seamlessly to the existing footprint, doubling the amount of exhibit space and giving the building an open, airy feeling. The exterior was made architecturally unique, with special windows that catch LED lights and change colors installed to draw attention to the museum.
Inside, MODS' exhibit staff planned a variety of interactive exhibits to be a “learning landscape.” A design team with experience working with major science museums was hired. Various individuals and companies were brought on board to support the creation of stimulating exhibits that provide an educational experience without relying solely on panels of text.
At the same time the new exhibits were being designed, the old exhibits were being refreshed. Broward Health came forward as a key partner, sponsoring exhibits on cutting-edge medical technology, healthy living and important health concepts that now occupy much of the second floor.
A rotating exhibit space in the new wing was created to provide fresh enticements for visitors. In mid-2012, the current exhibit on working sculptures made from K’NEX toys will move out, and a live gecko exhibit will move in.
Four double, state-of-the-art science classrooms were added to accommodate the 18 different age- and interest-oriented classes on physics, environmental science, electricity, magnetism and other topics provided by MODS staff. A new 100-seat theater − the Keller Science Theater − provides a venue for science demonstrations and guest speakers.
Despite the economic downturn, donors stood behind their pledges, and the EcoDiscovery Center opened on November 11 − within budget. To cover the timing of long-term pledges, SunTrust provided a bridge loan.
MODS' future looks laser-bright
MODS' expansion is not over yet. The museum stands on a large plot of land that is only partly occupied by buildings. All trees have been relocated to the west side to make room for an outdoor science park with kinetic sculptures, planned for the future. “We have such good weather, you should be able to go to the museum and be outside. You shouldn't have to make a choice between playing outside or going to a museum,” Cavendish reasons.
And although the EcoDiscovery Center only recently opened, the staff continually evaluates all exhibits to ensure that the museum remains fresh and enticing.
“We are always asking, 'What can we do better? Do we need to add an exhibit or drop one?'” says Cavendish.
Changes mean fundraising, but that doesn't bother Cavendish. She knows the museum makes an impact.
MODS has already hired several graduates of the mentoring/internship program it offers for teens who have aged out of foster care. And periodically, university students return to tell Cavendish the museum was instrumental in their decision to pursue a career in science.
But last year, a surprise comment put the value of MODS − and its future − in perspective. It was the type of comment that makes a museum CEO's heart sing.
At the 2010 party for volunteers, a young lady approached Cavendish. “I'm getting ready to go to college. MODS has been such an inspiration for me. I want to be a doctor, and I want my name on that wall someday,” she said, pointing to the list of donors.
“It was a wonderful moment for me,” says Cavendish.
You “otter” see them
A main attraction at MODS is the river otter exhibit − something Cavendish had wanted for nearly 20 years. “Otters are friendly, lively and amusing. People love them, and they draw attention to the problems of co-existing with wildlife,” she says. An outdoor pool with special “limestone” walls was designed to prevent the four otters from climbing out. The otters are brought inside at night, where they romp in an indoor pool.