Field Tripping: The McWane Science Center in Birmingham, Alabama
As a lifelong Cincinnatian, Birmingham (where The Girl was raised,) has always managed to surprise me. Despite being located deep in the heart of conservative Alabama, Birmingham turns out to be a fascinating place.
As one whose foray’s below the Mason-Dixon line were limited to beer runs to Newport in Northern Kentucky and one trip to Reds Spring Training when it was still in Sarasota, I was skeptical to say the least the first time the Girl dragged me down south to meet her family.
The drive down through Kentucky and Tennessee certainly reveals an amount of Bible Belt flavor that is hard to ignore. The highway is flanked by billboards proclaiming that “Hell is Real”, “Jesus Died For Our Sins” as well as a few slightly more complicated messages…
Once you get into Alabama proper, competing with the various Confederate Memorials you start to find some real gems. Stop at the US Space and Rocket Center if you have time (it’s on the schedule for our next trip.) Barring that you should at least check out the Alabama Welcome Center in Elkmont, sporting an authentic Saturn 1B Rocket.
Birmingham proper has some interesting sights as well. The Birmingham Zoo is small but fun. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is an incredible resource and a must visit for anyone wishing to learn more about the US Civil Rights Movement. It’s probably a visit best left for older kids, tween or above, because I could see the Grommet getting pretty bored there.
Not boring the Grommet, or any other kid excited by science, nature and adventure, is the star of our Field Trip, the McWane Science Center. Located in the heart of downtown Birmingham, McWane has become a regular part of our visits with the Opa and Omam, featuring four stories of fun, with plenty for all ages to enjoy.
Upsides: Mcwane manages to pack a lot of material into a really small footprint, making the most of its vertical space. The first floor features a metric ton of hands on science exhibits designed to encourage parents and kids to play together, like the Giant Lever, or the Pulley Chair Lift which demonstrate some simple machine physics and have the extra potential to cause Dad or Grandpa to hurt themselves. With lots of buttons to press, activities to share and plenty of whiz bang, your family can easily eat up an hour of visiting time here. In the Just Mice Size area rugrats 0-5 can romp around without getting squished by their bigger fellows.
The second floor is more natural history oriented, with some excellent dinosaur skeletons and a Dig Pit where your paleontologist in waiting can spend hours carefully exposing a hadrosaur skeleton… or throw fake dirt around depending on their temperament. If you were expecting some form of deep south creationism to be tolerated at McWane then you’ll be relieved to find an extensive fossil collection and displays that focus on the Birmingham area’s history as the floor of an ancient inland sea. Once again there are lots of hands on activities and places for Mom and Dad to get involved as well. The second floor also holds the Explore Lab, where kids can handle fossils, microscopes and learn all about the scientific method, (it’s also a great place for parents to rest their tired feet) and my favorite; 4000 years of Medical Instruments from the collection of Dr. Dennis Pappas. The display when we visited over the holidays was all about quack medical devices and snake oil salesmen. The third floor holds seasonal displays, like the local model train clubs Christmas display, while the basement holds the World of Water, which is mostly just a small aquarium. Nice, but nothing you won’t see anywhere else. They do have the now obligatory Shark Molesting Station that has cropped up at every other aquarium I visit.
McWane also hosts a full featured IMAX theatre so there’s a place to see nature documentaries and The Polar Express on a GINORMOUS SCREEN.
Downsides: Being in the heart of downtown, traffic can get hairy at opening and closing, although they do have an ample parking. A food court is available for concessions, but the wait time was really long while we were there. The Subway had the longest line. Although they do their best to keep the interior traffic flowing, there can be a lack of elbow room when the place gets crowded. Be on the lookout for little ones running by right at crotch injury level.
Final Verdict: If your kids are like mine, then they’ll love even the lamest science museum. Our standards should perhaps be higher. It’s not as big as COSI, or as flashy as the Smithsonian, but for a smaller city Museum, McWane packs a surprising punch. I give it 3.75 stars (still working out what the scale should be) and highly recommend The McWane Science Center for kids 0-12. Older kids might get a little bored depending on their science enthusiasm.
EDIT: If you want to see more snapshots of the McWane Science Center, check them out here, or at the new Grounded Parents Flickr Group.
Featured Image and Giant Lever Courtesy of McWane Science Center
Bob’s Boobie Bungalow Courtesy of Blotz Photo Arts