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A celebration of science: Headwaters Science Center to mark 20th birthday with free admission

Headwaters Science Center staff person Anita Merritt holds a program on trees as part of Wednesday’s “Tots in Science” program at the center in downtown Bemidji. Holding a leaf is 4-year-old Nika Wiltermuth, while her 10-month-old brother Leo is held by mother Myah Wiltermuth. HSC is celebrating its 20th anniversary all day Saturday with free admission. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — As a girl holds a boa constrictor, her brother figures out how fast he can pitch. Nearby, their friends observe a ball as a stream of air supports it mid-air.

Welcome to the Headwaters Science Center, a hallmark of Bemidji’s downtown. The center, described recently as one of the jewels in Bemidji’s crown, celebrates its 20th anniversary Saturday, offering free admission, door prizes and science demonstrations.

“Twenty years is a milestone,” said Susan Joy, executive director. “It’s a really big achievement for a nonprofit, for a business, to be around 20 years, to have survived the economic downturn of ’08.”

Joy has been director since 2012, having been hired to replace the center’s first director, Laddie Elwell, who retired after 18-plus years.

Elwell, and her husband Jim, who served as the center’s finance officer, were among a group of locals who gathered in 1992 to begin discussing, and ultimately planning for, a Bemidji-based science center.

In 2011, Laddie recalled to the Pioneer how she and Jim traveled to Boston and were informed of a grant providing start-up funds for such centers, offering exhibits for half their cost. The deadline, though, was the very next day. Even though the Headwaters Science Center secured the grant, it had to pay the other half — $77,000 — and Laddie personally signed the contract.

“That was a crazy thing to do,” she recalled in 2011. “I don’t think the center had $1,000.”

The science center then secured its current location — 413 Beltrami Ave. NW — in the old JCPenney building, and opened to the public on March 6, 1994.

25,000 annual visitors

Today, the center employs six full-time employees and sees 25,000 visitors a year, with the peak season running from March — when it could see upward of 1,200 a month thanks largely to school field trips — to September.

“It’s a testament to Laddie’s vision that we even exist,” Joy said. “It’s a testament to the community.”

The Science Center boasts dozens of exhibits, from live animals to hands-on exploration to biological collections.

Staff agreed that the live animals are among the most popular attractions, and Peggy Nygaard, who has worked for the science center for 19 years, said the interactions with the children are the best.

“Kids will say to me all the time, “I remember you from last year! Do you remember me?’” she said, smiling. “I always say, ‘Of course I do!’”

Other popular exhibits include the Roll-a-Ball, through which visitors explore the dynamics of motion; the Bernoulli Ball, which demonstrates the relationship of gravity to moving air, using the same principle that helps airplanes fly; the Sound Tube, a 100-foot-long tube through which visitors can easily talk to one another from opposite sides of the expansive exhibit floor; and many others.

“That’s the beauty of this place, it’s all hands-on,” Joy said. “There’s no pressure. It’s all self-directed.”

Seventy percent of the center’s financial support come from families or individuals within a 50-mile radius.

Joy said a goal is to strengthen the bonds with local businesses. An ongoing program is now bringing firms into the center to help build connections between professionals and kids, to get youth interested in science, technology, engineering and math. For example, the next Saturday Science is at 2 p.m. March 15, with TEAM Industries, and is free with paid admission to the center.

“They need kids to get hooked on math and science at young ages and need them to stay interested in STEM,” Joy said, talking about the benefits of such partnerships.

Forecasting the future

Before Laddie retired, there was talk of a relocation, of moving to a larger, more expansive building, perhaps partnering with other nonprofits to create an arts and science center.

That no longer is the plan, Joy said.

The science center is committed to its current location, she continued. Indeed, with the help of a grant, the interior walls have all been painted and refreshed, so the center is reinvesting back into the existing facility.

“We belong to the Bemidji community,” Joy said. “We belong to the community we serve.”

She said there are probably about five science centers nationwide in communities similar to Bemidji’s size, and Joy said she’s considering a program where the centers would swap out their exhibits, in essence lending them to one another for brief periods of time, to keep things vibrant and new.

“We will continue to offer hands-on, high-quality science education,” she said, discussing the future. “We will offer fresh experiences.”