Earthquakes. Tsunamis. And dinosaur poop.
Downtown Tulsa is the unlikely setting for all of those.
Occupying the entire third floor of the Oil Capital Building at 507 S. Main St. is the Tulsa Geoscience Center, a museum that allows students from kindergarten through 12th grade the chance to explore the earth sciences and all their fascinating aspects.
Norman Hyne -- founder and chairman of Energy America, which operates the center -- makes a point of emphasizing the exploration aspect of what goes on there.
"It's got to be hands on," he said of the center. "All learning is hands on."
The geosciences center is not new to Tulsa, having been operated for years at the Society of Exploration Geophysicists headquarters at 88th and Yale before it lost its funding in the economic downturn. Last year, Hyne and Kerry Joels -- director of the Energy America Education Institute -- reorganized the center by convincing Kanbar Properties, the owner of the Oil Capital Building, to turn over the 5,400 square feet on the third floor of the structure to their organization for three years rent free.
"The key was getting space," Hyne said. "All these different counties were offering space, but Kanbar came up with this. They gave us the whole floor."
All the center's equipment and displays from the Society of Exploration Geophysicists were leased to the new organization for $1 a year, and the organization even paid to move the material to its new home, Hyne said. The center began operating from its new space in the summer of 2010, retaining its director, Susan Henley, from its former location.
All the center needs now is a little exposure, he said.
That issue will be partially addressed during downtown Tulsa's annual Mayfest celebration May 19-22 when the center holds its first open house. It also will have a presence in the nearby children's tent at the festival, where a sandbox will be set up and kids will be allowed to dig for a fossil, which they are allowed to keep.
Hyne and Joels hope that kind of hands-on access ignites a life-long interest in geosciences among the students who visit the center. Joels -- a former curator and division director at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. -- is particularly interested in that aspect of the center's mission.
"We really do need to get more of our kids involved in this," he said, describing the delight many children express when they unearth a real fossil -- the center buys tiny ones by the thousands from a source in Africa, he said -- from the sandbox. "Embedded in that is a whole new generation of scientists and geologists and mathematicians waiting to get turned on."
The center can accommodate groups of up to 50 students for free two- to three-hour field trips, though those groups are then divided into smaller teams of 15 or 20 individuals. The different groups are escorted through the center's various stations and are invited to participate in such activities as making a plaster mold of a fossil, watching an educational video, making rubber bands from polymers derived from oil and learning how some minerals are mildly radioactive.
In light of recent events in Japan, two of the center's most popular stations are its earthquake and tsunami rooms, where students are allowed to create miniature versions of those phenomena. A seismograph registers the vibrations in the floor when students jump, while the ripples created by a vibrating tuning fork inserted into a tub of water demonstrate the principle behind those devastating ocean waves.
Core Values. The geosciences center is not new to Tulsa, having been operated for years at the Society of
Exploration Geophysicists headquarters at 88th and Yale before it lost its funding in the economic downturn.
The center began operating from its new space at 507 S. Main St. in the summer of 2010.
Hyne said until recently, few students visiting the center -- maybe one in 30 -- had experienced an actual earthquake. But that changed with a tremor that was widely felt in south Tulsa about two months ago, he said.
"Now, almost everyone has," he said, noting that many of those students can recall feeling it as they sat at their desks.
Another popular station is the fluorescence room, where students are introduced to common items such as Irish Spring soap, mineral water, paper U.S. currency, yellow highlighter markers and some minerals embedded in rocks that glow under a black light.
Naturally, there's no shortage of rocks, with stations designed to illustrate and explain how certain types of stone are created.
"Even professional geologists walk in here and are amazed at our collection," Joels said, explaining that only one-third of the material is on display at a given time.
Still, even those stations can't compare with the center's star attractions -- fossils of a tooth from a Tyrannosaurus rex and a claw from a Velociraptor -- as well as, yes, the petrified poop of a smaller dinosaur.
While he acknowledged that many students are put off at an early age by the difficulty of science and mathematics, Joels hopes the displays the center offers appeal to the imagination of more than a few of those children, perhaps prompting them to consider geoscience careers.
"Our objective is, we want to turn them into rock hounds," he said.
The center has a number of docents who escort the school groups through the stations, many of whom are retired geologists with doctoral degrees, Joels said. There are also a number of high school and college interns immersed in an earth sciences curriculum, elevating the quality of instruction at the center to a high level, he said.
Though a number of oil and gas industry foundations have provided funding, Joels said it's not the center's role to propagandize.
"This is not an oil industry sales job," he said. "They actually learn geoscience. That's part of creating an informed citizenry."
Hyne and Joels envision building their own Energy America museum someday, a stand-alone building somewhere in downtown Tulsa or the Brady Arts District that builds on the current mission of the Tulsa Geoscience Center. They also hope at some point to be able to replicate the center in other cities in the region.
"This is the nucleus of what we're doing, but we think it's a basis for expanding," Joels said.
"We really see this as the first step in a much broader effort to educate kids," he said.
For more information about the center, call 918-392-4556 or visit tulsageosciencecenter.org.
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