Grow - The Newest Exhibit At The St. Louis Science Center

Having school age kids, you get your fair share of museums. It feels like part of the responsibility as a parent and luckily I have kids who indulge us and at times enjoy the experience.

We've recently visited "Grow", the newest exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center in the city's Kings Oak Neighborhood.

Now my kids enjoyed 90 plus degree heat, mind you. But it was my wife and I that were smitten.

I will try to contain my excitement and retain some semblance of objectivity as I type this out; but, this is the best damn educational experience in St. Louis per this lifelong Midwesterner who grew up in the great state of Illinois.

So here's the official description from the SLSC:


Dig Deeper as we take a look at the science of the most important element of our daily lives: Our food. Where does it come from? How does it grow? How far does it travel? And how can each of us make a difference so we can all eat? You'll find the answers to all these questions and so much more at this one-of-a-kind exhibit focusing in on the journey of food.

We all have a role to play in the stewardship of our food supply and right here at the Saint Louis Science Center, we have the opportunity to show you exactly how you can make a difference. Welcome to GROW!

This amazing exhibit combines all my values as a scientist, parent, environmentalist and pragmatic citizen. Most of all, it appeals to my love of plants, gardening, farming and food. Due to my profession, I've had the fortune of visiting farms from Argentina to Canada and I am highly tuned in to crop safety, biotechnology, plant breeding and modern agricultural technology. This exhibit will go a long way in educating the public...whether you have a science or farming background or not, you will learn about ag here in a most engaging fashion.

As a long time city resident I am regularly in awe of the lack of knowledge and naive ignorance many people in urban environments have about gardening and farming. It's nobody's fault people don't understand how things grow and what it takes. I mean I can't begin to tell you how my iPhone works? I don't study it....I don't care. Anyhow, this exhibit targets the highest level of understanding of food and how it makes it's way from the packet of seed to your refrigerator...and I was blown away.

So, I'll share with you what I saw on my visit.

First of all the exhibit is located between the main Science Center building and the Compton Drew Investigative Learning Center on Oakland Avenue. Remember that big inflated white tent just west of the Science Center? That's the space.

But now you'll see this beautiful building:

Make your way from the second floor of the Science Center just past the deck that overlooks the dinosaurs and head through the doors for the outdoor exhibit.

Plant, cultivate, harvest

The first thing you'll notice to your left is an amazing chicken coop.  I know that sounds weird, right? Amazing chicken coop! Well my neighbors have backyard chickens and I've become fascinated with the process and hope to get in the game myself at some point. But this coop takes it to a new level. It was designed by the respected Polish artist/architect Jakub Szczesny. And by my untrained eye seems to be a spaceship take on raising chickens that combines the Flaming Lips movie sets with mid-century modern space-age design.

Keep heading south and you'll hit a series of raised beds and gardens. In the center there is a docent teaching about the importance of earthworms and composting to soil health. 

The invaluable local resource: Gateway Greening has partnered with the SLSC to establish content and maintain beds and learning materials.

The exhibits combine perfect mixtures of plants that will not deplete the soil and co-habitate nicely in a confined space. Or themed food gardens, like a "salsa garden" that has tomatoes, peppers, onion and cilantro all in the same bed. Helpful tips abound, like adding marigolds to deter animals from destructive white flies to backyard rabbits.

There are tools and seeds available for you to dig and get dirty planting green beans in the various soils with variable amounts of compost. They have little biodegradable pots that you can take your plant home.

Now, keep heading north and the place gets STL-real:  Beer garden! In the garden! It's called the "Fermentation Station" and it is housed in a re-purposed shipping container that symbolizes how food is brought to you, via truck, rail, ocean freight and air! Urban Chestnut, et al. and snacks await you! High design everywhere. The borders of the beer garden are grape vines that are being trained on wires to provide a defined green wall. The tables are designed to expand depending on the size of your party.

Head west and the kids can climb around on a modern tractor and walk through a greenhouse that speaks to protected-culture agriculture. Ever wonder how you can get a bell pepper in three beautiful colors, year round for about the same price? Greenhouses.

Then the star of the show (to my grade-schooler) appears: a brand new Case combine with a corn can walk up the stairs and sit in the cab and see how high tech harvests are done.

Looking out the cab windshield, you see one of our best Midwestern friends Zea mays planted in rows just like a farmer would see. 

But those aren't just simulated props, there is an active drought research experiment being conducted by St. Louis University scientists who are collaborating with state and federal government to study the effects of drought on row crops. This high tech research is utilizing high-end thermal and hydrospectral cameras and a field robot that monitors plant growth, soil's ability to retain moisture and ground temperatures. Wow...and there are touch screen monitors to learn more about the research.

Wind around to the animal section and learn about beef cattle and their four stomachs. There is a model dairy cow that you can simulate hand milking or affixing the pressurized milking machines to the udders.

There are little farm implement toys that kids can race around on a small cinder track.

Toward the west side of the exhibit there is a fruit orchard demonstration garden. The fences are planted with grafted pear plants that are designed to grow along a flat surface, creating a green, fruit-producing wall.

There is a pollinator section that speaks to the role of the animals (mostly insects) in helping agriculture. We wouldn't have blueberries at this scale and price without our European honeybees. The seats around the learning stations are sections of trees!

Strolling eastward, we came across some science students who had a mosquito display talking about Zika, et al. They were encouraging visitors to engage and ask questions.

Next to the scientific poster display was a section on water, emphasizing the importance of readily available water. There is data everywhere including the breakdown of water use in the United States:

61% irrigation

16% household

16% cities and factories

 5% aquaculture

 2% livestock

The message of responsible water management is re-enforced in the landscape design where rain gardens and swales are installed around the perimeters.

Finally, you can enter the large centerpiece building right in the middle. Inside are plenty of displays manned by docents and interactive screens that speak to the bi-state (Illinois and Missouri) agricultural offerings and how that grain and food is harvested, processed, sold and distributed.

You can select the county of either state and see what is grown there. My hometown county does it all!

It's hard not to be impressed with this beautifully designed and executed exhibit. If you have visited, I'd like to hear what you think in the comments section.