A closer look at Salt Lake City’s Discovery Gateway children’s museum

Story and slideshow by BROOKE MANGUM

See the world through the eyes of a child at Discovery Gateway

Imagine a place where children’s minds can run free. Imagine a place where children can be whatever they want to be. Imagine a place where play is celebrated. What if this place encouraged and facilitated education and learning as well.

Does that sound too good to be true? This is what Discovery Gateway offers the community.

“Discovery Gateway, and organizations like it, are so important and different from other museums because they inspire children to learn via play,” said Steven Suite, chairman of Discovery Gateway board of directors.

Formally known as the Children’s Museum of Utah, the west-side nonprofit Discovery Gateway is located at 444 W. 100 South. The museum relocated to this 60,000-square-foot building in 2006 and is filled with exhibits of hands-on educational fun.

The museum was founded in 1978 by a group of parents and educators who believed children learned best by “doing.” The museum aims to be one of the most trusted and preferred family discovery centers and child educational resources in the Intermountain West.

The exhibits in Discovery Gateway are designed to address the multiple ways that children learn. All of the exhibits are interactive and inspire learning through creative play. The museum is divided into six zones, each having various hands-on learning experiences. Each section appeals to different age groups and children’s interests.

“What is so cool about our exhibits is that they not only teach children but they get them thinking about possible future fields,” said Lindsie Smith, Discovery Gateway development and marketing director in an email interview. “Each exhibit that we have focuses on a different career field. We have science exhibits, medical exhibits, activities in the theatre and arts, journalism, the possibilities are endless.”

Discovery Gateway is divided into six main zones: the Garden, Kids Eye View, Story Factory, Media Zone, the Studio and the Terrace.

The Garden is a 30-foot beehive that serves as the main entryway to the museum. This exhibit is designed to teach cause and effect. Children and adults work together to keep the hive functioning by performing various mechanical tasks. For example, one child is in charge of feeding plastic balls into a machine while another uses a hand crank to power a fan that moves the balls along the path to the next station. In another part of the hive a child uses foot pedals to activate a vacuum tube that propels the balls back to the beginning. When all the stations and children are working together and doing their job the hive comes alive.

Kids Eye View is dedicated to the museum’s youngest visitors. This zone is divided into multiple mini exhibits designed for tiny hands and budding motor skills. The exhibits within the Kids Eye View capture toddlers’ imaginations by exposing them to life on the farm, construction zones, a life-sized playhouse and every little one’s favorite, the rushing water exhibit.

The Story Factory offers visitors an opportunity to explore the many ways to tell a story. This is the journalism zone that is designed to inspire young future writers to discover the fun in writing and storytelling. The exhibit has something for all levels of writers, from those who are just beginning to craft sentences to those who are more experienced   with using words and modern multimedia.

Media Zone is sponsored in part by KSL 5 news. In this zone children are able to try out any and all media jobs and try their hands at TV and music production. Children can see what it is like to anchor the news, do a weather report and work as a camera operator. This section also has music mixing tables and recording devices where children can learn to make, record and produce their own music.

“My favorite is the news station,” said Gabriel Rosse, 10, a regular museum visitor. “It is so cool! I feel like I am doing the news for real.”

The Studio is a place for little scientists, artists and engineers to let their imaginations run wild. This is a hands-on creative space where children can learn about such things as physics, earth sciences, biology, mathematics and forms of art and architecture. The children are able to build their own mini structures and test their earthquake durability on the vibration tables. They also can conduct their own experiments with vacuum tubes.

The Terrace is home to one of the museum’s most beloved and recognizable exhibits, the Life Flight Helicopter, donated by Intermountain Healthcare. In this area children are able to learn about medical professions as well as search and rescue occupations. The once fully functional helicopter is now a kid friendly version that allows children to experience the thrill of flight using sounds and vibrations. The chopper lights up and makes all of the sounds of real flight such as the hum of the engine, the wind blowing on the tarmac and voices on the radio reciever.

“I love the helicopter,” said Max Smith, 6. Max lives in Salt Lake City and attends Reid School. “It is loud and makes me feel like I am flying fast.”

The museum also hosts traveling exhibits that are featured at Discovery Gateway for a limited time. The most recent exhibit was called PLAY. An exhibit called “Tinker Toys” is expected to début in 2012.

“The exhibits are fantastic,” said Anne Godfrey, a Salt Lake City mother who often brings her children to the museum. “I really feel good about taking my kids here. Not only do the kids love it, but I feel good knowing they are improving their education.”

The people at Discovery Gateway consider their crowning achievement to be the Junior Achievement City (JA City), located on the fourth floor. They are so excited about this exhibit because in their eyes it is the ultimate example of hands-on learning. JA City is in partnership with Junior Achievement of Utah and offers a hands-on learning environment for fifth-graders to gain “real-life” business experience. It is also a place for eighth-graders to learn how to manage their personal finances.

In JA City children run their own mock fully functional city. Using the knowledge they have acquired in the classroom they are able to bring this information to life. The children hold their own elections for mayor and hold different occupations and positions in the community.

Some youth are bankers, others grocery store workers. If it exists in real life it is highly likely that it is represented at JA City. The children involved in the program assume different positions in the mock community and learn valuable lessons about different occupations and the work that goes in to make society function.

“This exercise gives a huge opportunity for youth,” said board chairman Steve Suite. ”The kids have to work together or things don’t run smoothly. It is a lot like our Garden in the lower level but on a whole new scale where they make their own laws and essentially their utopia.”

Suite says Discovery Gateway is a magical place where kids can be kids, but they also learn and have the opportunity to think about their futures.