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Children's science museum spectrUM moving to downtown Missoula

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Does making a ball move without touching it, dissecting a sheep brain, making slime or controlling an underwater robot sound fun?

All of those pursuits – and more – will be possible at spectrUM’s new, soon-to-open downtown Missoula location.

The interactive children’s science museum is set to open Aug. 23, with visitors welcome to catch sneak peeks during First Friday on Aug. 2 and several more times before the grand opening.

At the 218 Front St. location, families will be able to enjoy more of the best of what spectrUM has offered at its current location on the University of Montana campus, as well as new exhibits and activities made possible by the expanded space.

The new space will meet the high demand for spectrUM programs and help the museum meet its goal of inspiring kids to pursue higher education and perhaps careers in science, engineering, math or technology, said Holly Truitt, spectrUM’s director.

SpectrUM workers realized from the time the doors opened at UM in 2007 that a more accessible, larger location would be needed, Truitt said.

Grants, city support, private donations and a lot of community support have made the downtown location possible.

SpectrUM serves about 39,000 people a year. That number is expected to expand to at least 50,000 when the new space opens, Truitt said.

Providing engaging activities and places for kids to learn about science and math is crucial to the future and solving all manner of global issues – including the search for cures to diseases, said Michael Kavanaugh, director at the University of Montana’s neuroscience center.

“Those problems aren’t going to solve themselves. We have to get kids engaged,” Kavanaugh said.

The spectrUM activities and exhibits will do just that, as well as interest people of all ages, organizers hope.

“We want to bring experiences to the adult population in Missoula, too,” Kavanaugh said.


In the Brainzone, kids will be able to explore the world of neuroscience through a working lab, complete with fruit flies. The lab is the only one of its kind in a museum – worldwide.

Kids can learn about cutting-edge things such as optogenetics, through which light is used to activate different brain circuits, Kavanaugh said.

For a little competition, visitors can don a headset that will read their brain’s alpha waves and move a ball. Whoever concentrates better moves the ball faster and wins, said Jessie Herbert, the museum’s manager who also runs education programs.

They can do the same with a set of ears. If they concentrate enough, the ears will move wherever the kid wants them to. Kids won’t be able to see the movement unless they’re sitting in front of a mirror.

“But other people will know if you’re paying attention or not,” Herbert said, laughing.

Brain dissections also will take place in the neuroscience area, allowing kids to see neurons that glow when exposed to certain kinds of light, Kavanaugh said.

The next room holds several different stations, with a focus on large-river ecosystems in the middle.

The exhibits are place-centric and delve into what the Clark Fork River ecosystem looks like, both from Bonner to Brennan’s Wave and from Bonner to Kelly Island. Kids will be able to put in a dam at Bonner on one exhibit and experiment with how water impacts erosion in another.

They also will be able to use a flight station and learn about how radar can be used to research fish populations.


In one corner of the large, central room, an urban archaeology station geared toward early childhood development will entice young visitors to create their own cities. In another corner is the Digizone.

While the exhibits won’t change, kids can find a different hands-on activity daily at the Discovery Bench. Activities will include making slime, controlling aquatic robots, creating circuits, performing dissections, experimenting with liquid nitrogen and more.

The center’s multimedia classroom will be a hub for field trips, clubs and hands-on learning activities, and ensure kids have a place to learn even when they’re not in school.

“We love to say, ‘When school’s out, spectrUM’s in,’ ” Truitt said.

Community organizations that work to help kids and families will be able to use the room as a meeting space, she added.

Throughout the museum, kids will have face-to-face conversations with role models.

The role models range in age and profession from high school and college students to heads of departments at the University of Montana to community members.

Through the role models, kids will create a personal relationship with learning and will explore career paths they might not have thought about otherwise. They’ll be able to ask questions about what different careers are like and how best to break into them, Truitt said.

The interactions create long-term connections, Herbert said.

“Here in Missoula, you’ll meet them on the street,” she said.

The current, on-campus spectrUM location will be open for the last day on Aug. 10.

Hours at the new downtown location, beginning Aug. 23, will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Daily admission will remain at $3.50 for ages 4 and up, while the membership price will increase to $60. Memberships also are available for checkout at the Missoula Public Library.

For more information, go to

Reporter Alice Miller can be reached at 523-5251 or at

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