Community support helped create the University of Montana spectrUM Discovery Area’s expanded exhibits and space in downtown Missoula, and community support will help open the doors during a grand opening event Friday.

Three hundred pairs of scissors are waiting so visitors can help cut the ribbon at 218 E. Front St. at 5 p.m.

Friday is the first time the public will see the finished museum, which is an expanded version of the discovery area that opened on the University of Montana campus in 2007. The campus site will continue to be used as a gallery space, with hands-on exhibits for the university community, and for field trips, clubs and summer camps.

At the downtown location, families can explore the working neuroscience Brain Lab, and experiment with how erosion and human impacts change rivers in the large-river ecosystem exhibit. A DigiZone multimedia classroom and Discovery Bench also will offer hands-on activities.

The dynamic, fun exhibits provide multiple ways for kids of all ages to delve into science and hopefully will foster a lifelong love of science that could translate into careers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, said Holly Truitt, spectrUM’s director.

Research incorporates many different careers, Truitt said.

Engineers, pilots, scientists, students and others make research possible, she said.

“There’s truly a community that’s involved in a research institute,” she said. To illustrate that, community mentors will be available to talk with kids about careers and explain exhibits at spectrUM.

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Ric Hauer is a professor and director at the Montana Institute of Ecosystems at UM – and a pilot who flies over rivers throughout the state and takes photographs to help study them.

An interactive exhibit of the Clark Fork River and an erosion table, developed in partnership with the ecosystems institute, connect kids with ecology and help create future preservationists, Hauer said.

“It’s sort of a small model of what takes place in nature,” he said.

A flight simulator should excite kids about ecosystems, too, he said.

The new museum took a place-centric approach to its design, but it and its mission are making waves elsewhere. Hauer cited Truitt’s appointment as one of 17 fellows this year at the Noyce Foundation as an example of how spectrUM is a worldwide beacon.

“Sort of underscoring that spectrUM is one of the emerging leaders of science discovery museums worldwide,” he said.

Potential for future growth exists, Hauer said, adding he’d like to see even more space filled with science-related activities.

Eventually, spectrUM would like to expand its outreach capabilities with a mobile lab to use in statewide outreach to schools and Native American reservations, Truitt added.

In addition to contributions from community members, the expansion was made possible by dozens of partners, including the National Science Foundation EPSCoR Program, Missoula Redevelopment Agency, National Institutes of Health, Institute on Ecosystems, Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience, UM President’s Office, Jane S. Heman Foundation, UM College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, UM’s School of Extended and Lifelong Learning, and SciGirls.

Entrance to the museum and a celebratory reception is free during the grand opening from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday. The opening event also includes dissections, Brain Lab activities and liquid nitrogen ice cream at the Discovery Bench.

Free passes are attached to the ribbon-cutting scissors, so visitors can come back to the museum to take a closer look at exhibits later as well, Truitt said.

Also, the museum will be open with free admission during the River City Roots Festival this weekend – noon to 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday – with more activities planned under the white tent in Caras Park during the festival.

Regular hours will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Daily admission will remain at $3.50 for ages 4 and older, while the membership price will increase to $60. Memberships also are available for checkout at the Missoula Public Library.

More information is online at spectrum.umt.edu.

Reporter Alice Miller can be reached at 523-5251 or at alice.miller@missoulian.com.

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