Science & Technology
6:00 am
Fri April 20, 2012

Nature Research Center Grand Opening Today

Today is a long-awaited day in Raleigh, the Nature Research Center will open its doors to the public for the first time. It’s a $56 million wing of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The 24-hour opening will feature demonstrations, bands, and live walk-throughs of the facility. The Nature Research Center is a dazzling array of technology, built to engage young minds.

Dave DeWitt: Like many families in the Triangle, ours has marked the progress of the new Nature Research Center by the changes to the giant globe jutting out of the northeast edge of the building.

Donovan DeWitt: Look, there’s Africa. Wow, the map’s pretty detailed.

The globe is officially called the Daily Planet, and as impressive as it is from a car driving by on Jones Street, it’s nothing compared to what’s inside.

Roy Campbell: Watch this, this is fun, just check this out.

Roy Campbell bounds into the middle of the Daily Planet, a one-of-a-kind spherical theater, and sits down on the floor. He looks up at three stories of high-definition video of birds, squirrels and monarch butterflies. He’s leaning back on his elbows and appears almost serene, as technicians and designers fine-tune their multi-media presentation.

But Campbell is anything but calm. As the Director of Exhibits, he’s overseen every new installation in the Nature Research Center, from design to construction. Eleven years in the making. And there’s a frenzy on now to get it ready for the grand opening Friday.

A few days before the opening, the place is alive with activity. Over there, a software technician is putting the final touches on a mechanical exhibit that shows bats in flight. Over here, new species of fish are being introduced into a large tank. My ten-year-old son, Jackson, worries that some of the fish will become lunch for the others.

Jackson DeWitt: So if you do eventually acquire a bonnet-head shark, because I do not see one right now, would that endanger the other fish, or? Probably not.

Content that all the fish will be friends, my two boys make a beeline right past the WUNC studio and into a submersible, an actual six-seat submarine. Inside, it takes visitors to the depths of the ocean.

Submersible Audio: OK my depth is 1305, we’re all done down here. Request permission to leave the bottom.

Outside the submersible, the entire place has the feel of CSI with the LED lighting, the images projected onto glass walls, and the gleaming labs ringing all three floors of exhibits. Campbell says that’s by design.

Campbell: So when you come to this facility now, you see glass walls everywhere, you see very few solid walls. A lot of the time, you’re actually looking into laboratories where researchers are working. So the whole point is to make the activity of research transparent.

And interactive. Here, a paleontologist will invite visitors to excavate? real fossils, and a biologist will explain her work by having groups of people find DNA in cells. Many of the researchers here have dual appointments at NC State or NC Central.

But Campbell admits the place wasn’t created just to be a fancy lab. It was created to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, by hooking them early with a sense of awe.

Campbell: Well, I’ve heard our director, Betsy Bennett, say many times, she says awesome. She says it a lot of times. But hearing it from the public, that’s going to feel good. That’s what we’re after. We want to be awesome.

As my own kids make their way back through the three-story atrium, and under a 90-foot light-and-sound animated ribbon made from LCD lights, I check to see how close the place has come to that goal.

Dave DeWitt: Jackson, what word or phrase would you use to describe this place?

Jackson DeWitt: Incredible.

That’s close enough.