How a one-of-a-kind rural Texas science museum brings STEM education to all kinds of students, including homeschoolers
In early December, Shelly Abbott of San Antonio brought a carload of kids (family plus a friend) to Johnson City’s Science Mill for Homeschool Day.
“In our homeschool, we’re very interested in that traditional avenue from school to college and career,” Abbott said. “In the beginning, we were broad in our focus. But as they age, I’m helping them to narrow the focus. One of my sons is into coding, so this month’s event about computer game development seemed worth the drive.”
Although it was only Abbott’s second trip to the Science Mill in the last year, the non-profit museum hosts monthly, themed Homeschool Days serving the Hill Country region. In fact, since their grand opening in early 2015, the Science Mill staff has made a concerted effort to reach out to the area’s homeschoolers alongside traditional public and private school students.
It’s all in keeping with the organization’s mission.
“We place a strong emphasis on STEM careers in all of our programming and educational outreach. It’s central to what we do, why we exist,” said Holly Barton, the Science Mill’s founding director of operations. “We want students—school kids and homeschoolers alike—to understand the full range of opportunities available to them in those fields and to decide to pursue those careers as they mature.”
STEM is a popular acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. These are areas widely believed to be rich with potential for lucrative jobs in our technology-driven economy.
“As an organization, we’re unique in serving young people in that careers are so central to our work,” said Barton. “With our homeschoolers, we see many parents and families come every month because they know they’ll get different insights every month. For each Homeschool Day, we have different activities that connect students to those STEM fields and we feature professional mentors onsite. We work hard to help kids see those connections.”
Barton and her team attract students from rural and urban communities equally. Although the Science Mill is known regionally for having a robust and engaging social media presence, Barton said that when it comes to homeschool families in particular, word of mouth is the biggest driver.
Another factor in the appeal is how the museum’s exhibits invite open inquiry and exploration.
“Our exhibits are intentionally open-ended. We have several criteria for selecting new exhibits, and that they must be open-ended is one of them,” said Barton. “They also have to be tied to a STEM topic, be hands-on and interactive, and they have to have multiple entry points. We want to engage different ages with each one, so a six year old might look at something one way and a ten year old in another way. With homeschool families in particular, those multiple entry points for engagement become even more critical, because they so often have kids of different ages with them when they visit us.”
While the exhibits within the walls and on the Science Mill’s grounds are engaging, the facility itself captivates casual passersby and visitors alike. The museum’s name alludes to the central building, a repurposed mill that attests to the region’s agricultural innovation and earlier technological advances.
“I think this is a unique space, the building itself and all it represents within this region and our history. There’s something refreshing about walking into a historical structure like ours and then discovering how fresh and modern it feels inside.”
The museum’s interiors—sleek, modern elements juxtaposed with wooden floors and rock walls—invites comparisons to the minimalist aesthetics associated with California’s Silicon Valley and Marfa, Texas. There’s even a multidimensional art installation by Wimberley artist McKay Otto in one of the mill’s old silos.
For educators, however, the biggest draw isn’t the facility’s world-class, artsy vibe but rather how compatible the science exhibits are with their curriculum.
“We’ve been studying force and motion and simple machines, and the Science Mill gave us a chance to experience those ideas hands-on,” said Kelly Larson with Austin’s AHB Community School, a hybrid of homeschool and traditional classroom styles. “This is the first time we’ve brought this class to the Science Mill for Homeschool Day. Honestly? The experience today was just perfect for what we’ve been studying.”
Pamela Price is the THE TEXAS WILDFLOWER’s publisher and executive editor. She is also the author of two parenting books, including one for working homeschool parents.