Fernbank Science Center: Atlanta's Science Lab

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The Fernbank Science Center, a unit of the Dekalb County School System, is located in the prestigious Druid Hills neighborhood of Atlanta about 15 minutes northeast of downtown. Nearby attractions include the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, the Carter Center, the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts and the shops and restaurants of downtown Decatur. The Science Center is about ten minutes from both Interstate 285 and the Interstate 75/85 Downtown Connector. MARTA, Atlanta's public transit system, has a bus line that stops near Fernbank.

Although Fernbank Science Center's flashier sister organization, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, gets all the attention, the Science Center is the original Fernbank, born from a schoolteacher's desire to have the 65-acre, old-growth Fernbank Forest preserved as a living laboratory of the life sciences. From that grew the Science Center, built in 1967. From a Teacher's Guide published that year, the Center states its purpose as "a unique academic facility designed to enhance scientific literacy through a variety of programs and exhibits developed for all levels of student and community groups.'' Although Fernbank serves as a classroom for the county schools, it is also a museum and learning laboratory for the public and is open for field trips from other school systems.

Some of the many features of the Fernbank Science Center include:

Fernbank Forest. The forest is one of the few areas of nearly undisturbed forest left in Georgia, and certainly in Atlanta. One-and-a-half miles of trails with signs identifying trees and plants wind through the forest, which is enjoyed by all ages. During the school day, the forest is used for instruction, but it is open to the public during non-school hours. The Center conducts popular bird walks in the forest.

The Jim Cherry Memorial Planetarium. The planetarium, with a 500-seat theater and a 70-foot dome, is one of the largest in the country. It features several programs a week for students and the public, including special, themed shows and a weekly look at "The Sky Tonight.''

Exhibit Hall. Exhibits cover a broad range of scientific topics and feature everything from a gem collection to the Apollo 6 Command Module. Instructional staff members are always on hand for explanations and demonstrations.

The Fernbank Observatory. The observatory is home to a 36-inch telescope, the largest in the Southeast, and one of the largest in the country completely dedicated to public education and viewing. Public observations are offered two nights a week and are free.

A partnership with NASA in the Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA) outreach program, which, according to Fernbank's website, is "designed to increase participation and retention of historically underrepresented K-12 youth in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.''

Advanced studies for students. These advanced after-school, for-credit classes offer students access to laboratories, working scientists and field explorations in a wide variety of subjects. Classes are free for Dekalb County students and available on a tuition basis for other students.

Internet reviews of Fernbank Science Center are mixed. One visitor said, "Your children will love it.'' Another, however, noted, "My four-year-old was bored stiff.'' Many people love the forest, with one person calling it "a pleasant retreat from the city.'' Because the Center is part of a school system, a visitor says, "Don't expect a whole lot,'' but others find Fernbank a great educational resource that "makes learning fun.'' The consensus seems to be that toddlers won't like it, but older children will. If you are going for flashy, state-of-the-art exhibits, go across the forest to the Museum of Natural History. But if you want a hands-on, educational experience, or if your child is lucky enough to use the center as part of school, then the Fernbank Science Center is a first-rate facility.

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