By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Last Thursday morning, a pair of yellow school buses were idling in front of the Hands On! Discovery Center waiting for a group of elementary school students to climb on board.
Field trips to Hands On! have long been a staple for children in our region, but since making the move from Downtown Johnson City to the Gray Fossil Site last June, Hands On! executive director Andy Marquart said the types of school groups coming to the center has diversified.
“When we were downtown, we were primarily third, fourth grade and under,” Marquart said. “Here we’re just seeing all kinds, and that is because of the paleontology side, but also because of our upgraded content. The type of exhibits that we’ve brought in and the content that we have makes it really justifiable for any school that wants to come in and use this experience as an extension of the classroom.”
Marquart said high school and middle school classes now frequent the discovery center along with their elementary school counterparts, and they’re coming from as far as Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky to engage in STEM-based activities Hands On! has to offer while also getting a taste of the work being done by paleontologists working at the fossil site located behind the building.
Marquart said peak field-trip season is still a little ways off, but as Hands On! nears the end of its first school year in its new location, he said projections for field trip attendance has tripled since October. Increased field trip business is part of an overall uptick in attendance Hands On! has enjoyed since making the move last year, a trend Marquart attributes to the partnership with the Gray Fossil Site.
“You can go to a lot of fossil dig sites, and you can go to science centers and children’s museums, but it’s very rare that you can get all of those experience in one place,” he said.
With spring break approaching, Marquart expects many families from around the area to pay the discovery center a visit to engage with exhibits that have something to offer people of all ages.
“We feel that if you’re anywhere between 4 and 94, you’re going to have a great time here,” Marquart said.