Science Center, Planetarium Ready to Introduce Science to All Ages
By Loni Nannini
Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium is a gateway to the galaxy and to the world of science at the University of Arizona and beyond.
The vision for Flandrau, said Executive Director Kellee Campbell, is to revitalize the center in a multi-year plan with new, interactive science-focused exhibits to serve visitors of every age for decades to come.
“For close to five decades, Flandrau has been an integral part of bringing the community to the University of Arizona and creating opportunities for people to experience the sciences,” Campbell said. “As we look toward the next 50 years, we are confident it will continue to play an important role in the community and in inspiring future scientists.”
“We are a planetarium and have deep roots in space sciences, but as a science center we also like to explore all areas of science beyond astronomy. Currently our exhibits also explore earth sciences, ecology and biology,” she said.
The 28,000-square-foot facility completed a two-phased renovation improvement project in 2016 that included upgrades to the 146-seat Eos Foundation Planetarium Theater. Last year, work wrapped up on a facility-wide renovation of public spaces, including new carpeting, paint and lighting. “Wild World of Bugs,” a first-rate formative educational exhibit, opened as the most significant exhibit investment in decades. Plans are in the works for a re-envisioned 1,200-square-foot marine exhibit with interactive discovery programs – including multiple salt water tanks – slated to open in fall of 2022, along with multipurpose spaces for school tours, educational programs, birthday parties and other uses.
“This is all made possible by partnerships with foundations, businesses and other donors and supporters who believe in Flandrau’s vision for the future,” said Michael Luria, assistant dean, corporate and community engagement for the UArizona College of Science. “They understand the value of science and believe that it is an important venue for the entire community, along with a real opportunity to introduce STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to young people. You never know what will ignite the spark of learning and curiosity, and this is an opportunity to bring students in so they can experience science holistically: Touch it, see it, and feel it.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, almost 23,000 of the 68,000 annual visitors to Flandrau were students in kindergarten through grade 12 on field trips.
“As part of the university, we have a unique opportunity to collaborate with departments and faculty members across the campus to engage undergraduate students in education and outreach by facilitating interactive workshops for the K-12 community,” Campbell said. “It is a powerful opportunity for all of the students to learn about science in a really engaging way.”
Flandrau connects its exhibits with school curriculum to provide a deep learning experience. “For example, through ‘Marine Discovery,’ students in middle school learn about marine science in class,” said William Plant, Flandrau director of exhibits. “Then when they come to the science center, they are able to explore aspects of marine life and sharks in a hands-on way through multiple stations – these include activities like dissection of a squid – before they go to the planetarium and see an immersive 360-degree, full-dome film about sharks. That is very cool and very intentional on our part.”
Insect Discovery provides a similar window into the world of insects and entomology. “Wild World of Bugs” offers a larger-than-life diorama of a fungus farm created by desert leafcutter ants. There are displays of prepared insect specimens from the UArizona Insect Collection. Hands-on exploration teaches concepts such as camouflage in the “Cryptic Critters” activity and “Reaction Time Challenge,” which allows students to compare how fast a human reacts with an insect’s reaction.
Plant said the immersive experiences are designed to motivate students and expose them to prospective careers and educational pathways they might not otherwise encounter.
“We want the kids to see that this is what science looks like. We want them to realize that it is interesting and fun, and think, ‘Someone who looks like me is doing this and maybe it is something I want to pursue,’ ” Campbell said.
Field trips to Flandrau also introduce UArizona to many young people. Luria said the comfortable and welcoming vibe often inspires return trips by children and their families, who may also explore other university museums, facilities and events.
“Flandrau is a very accessible educational experience that is fun and family-friendly,” he said.
While many may associate Flandrau with kids, world-class science on display offers something for visitors of every age, according to Campbell.
She encourages long-time Tucsonans, those who are new to the area and UArizona students to investigate the one-of-a-kind exhibits, many of which highlight the work of scientists and researchers at the University of Arizona College of Science and venues such as the UArizona Tree Ring Research Lab, Mt. Lemmon Sky Center, the Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory and other university-affiliated entities.
“One of the many benefits of being part of the University of Arizona is the ability to collaborate with scientists from all disciplines and bring their ground-breaking science and research into our exhibits and planetarium shows to share with our community,” Campbell said.
Shows in the Eos Foundation Planetarium Theater also cater to a range of ages and tastes. Favorites include “Tucson Sky & Beyond,” an astronomical look from Southern Arizona, and “Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon,” a laser light music show driven by the rock band’s hits.
Moving forward, Luria believes that expanded outreach and educational programming, increased collaborations, implementation of facility rental opportunities for special occasions, and exploration of innovative new partnerships will enable Flandrau to better serve the UArizona community and the community at large.
“It has been a transformative couple of years for Flandrau and that will continue for years to come,” he said. “The college is committed and UArizona is committed and we are now bringing foundations and organizations in the community to join that partnership. It is one way that business and industry can engage with the College of Science that directly impacts the community.”