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Greenville's Roper Mountain Science Center reopens to public after $16M upgrade

GREENVILLE — With a remade main entrance, a new 30,000-square-foot sustainability center and a dinosaur-sized addition to its nature walks, the 62-acre Roper Mountain Science Center campus has undergone a $16 million upgrade that the public will be able to see for the first time this summer.

No children, save the occasional employee's son or daughter, have set foot in the place for about 15 months since the coronavirus pandemic struck last year.

It has changed dramatically, starting with the Environmental and Sustainability Center that opened for the first time this week. Exhibits on local ecosystems, wastewater treatment and recycling throughout the airy, two-story structure are augmented this summer by the "Be The Dinosaur" traveling exhibit, which assigns visitors a Late Cretaceous period animal that tries to survive in an interactive, video game environment.

Children learn about what happens to water when it is flushed. They also learn about the environmental and societal implications — intended or otherwise — of wearing polyester or driving a battery-operated vehicle.

Fish tank at the Roper Mountain Science Center's new Environmental Science and Sustainability Center

The Roper Mountain Science Center's new Environmental Science and Sustainability Center, pictured here on Friday, May 28, 2021, features a 2,000-gallon fish tank with local species. The $12 million facility was entirely funded by Greenville County Schools, with private fund-raising covering an additional $4 million in fixtures and exhibits inside. Anna B. Mitchell/Staff

"It's all tied to the little things we can do to make it better," said Michael Weeks, director of Roper Mountain.

Tuesdays through Saturdays now until Aug. 7, anyone can buy a ticket ($12 for teens and adults, $10 for ages 4 to 12) and check out everything on the campus just off Interstate 385 and Roper Mountain Road.

In addition to the new sustainability center's museum space, the price of Roper Mountain's admission gives access to the buildings and exhibits the public has long been accustomed — namely, the “Starry Nights” programs on Friday nights at the Hooper Planetarium, hundreds of live animals at the Harrison Hall of Natural Science and historic structures on the campus's living farm, among other things.

This level of access — a 10-week season dubbed "Summer Adventure" — is something new for Roper Mountain, where admissions in the past were largely limited to the academic year and students. Butterfly Adventure in the Harrison Hall of Natural Science launched a few years ago, but had only a five-week summer season.

"We do about 50,000 students a year in annual school field trips," said Thomas Riddle, assistant director of the Roper Mountain Science Center. "But we heard the public, and they wanted to be here more."

The Roper Mountain Science Center is owned and operated by the Greenville County public school system, but locals see it as an amenity on par with the Children's Museum in downtown Greenville.

With the current upgrade — a vision that dates back at least a decade — Roper Mountain now has a professional polish. Visitors approach the sustainability center along a freshly paved path, adventure music playing from hidden speakers. The site's ticket booth has moved from a temporary shack along the facility's driveway to a permanent box office and entrance on the main floor of the Environmental and Sustainability Center.

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During Roper Mountain's pandemic-imposed closure, construction on the sustainability center carried on even as the center's educators hustled to post science lessons online for the district's more than 75,000 students, as well as thousands of other students across the state and nation.

"A lot of folks were talking to us and saying, 'Hey, I guess you guys had a lot of time to plan for that new building with you not teaching lessons on site,'" Riddle said. "And I said, 'No, just the contrary, our folks pivoted on the dime and created the most amazing live virtual lessons that we broadcast to schools.'"

Roper Mountain Science Center's new cafe

The Roper Mountain Science Center's new Environmental Science and Sustainability Center, pictured here on Friday, May 28, 2021, includes a cafe that, for the first time in the facility's history, will offer concessions to visitors. The facility opened its doors to the public for the first time on June 1. Anna B. Mitchell/Staff

The site's mile of nature trails has also been augmented over the past year with long-toothed monsters of Earth’s past. Look for life-sized models of tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops and stegosaurus lurking in among the pine trees, sugar maples and chestnut oaks. The Roper Mountain Science Center also launched a new website last month.

Weeks said the school district's $12 million financial commitment to the Environmental and Sustainability Center, which broke ground two years ago, was the first time in Roper Mountain's 36-year history that public money supported a capital project on the campus. Previously, all funds for campus buildings were privately raised through the Roper Mountain Science Center Association. The sustainability center's $4 million in exhibits were all paid for through private donations, he said.

Few trees were cut down during construction. The new building took the spot that was formerly the center's outdoor amphitheater.

"This building was designed with a lot of intentionality," Riddle said.

The ground floor of the sustainability center, meanwhile, now offers something new at the science center: concessions. Visitors in the past had to bring their own food.

Traveling dinosaur exhibit at the Roper Mountain Science Center

Thomas Riddle, assistant director of the Roper Mountain Science Center, demonstrates on Friday, May 28, 2021, how the "Be The Dinosaur" traveling exhibit works at the new Environmental and Sustainability Center at Roper Mountain. Roper Mountain's 62-acre campus, off limits for 15 months because of the coronavirus pandemic, will be open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays this summer. Anna B. Mitchell/Staff

Eventually, Weeks said, they hope to grow vegetables on the living farm to use in the center's cafe. During the academic year, Riddle said, vocational food-service students in the school district will work in the cafe to earn hours toward their certificates.

"The idea is that Greenville County Schools will be able to hire kids back once they graduate," Riddle said.

The science center's tie to public education is evident, not only in the number of students who come through its doors, but also science teachers statewide. Every summer, the center hosts week-long training sessions for teachers over six weeks, and every teacher goes home with about $1,000 in materials to support science education in their home schools. That effort is entirely funded by the South Carolina General Assembly with teachers at high-poverty schools given preference, Riddle said. There is always a waiting list.

Follow Anna B. Mitchell on Twitter at @AnnaBard2U.

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