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What's in your backyard: New Greenville Museum of Natural Sciences highlights Eastern NC

Plants and fossils, rising sea levels, pirates. All of these are part of the history and life of Eastern North Carolinians. And now, you can learn about it all locally. PRE’s Meredith Radford takes us to the new North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Greenville which recently opened.

On Tuesday mornings, the ‘discovery forest’ is full of young children sitting in a semicircle on pillows that look like tree stumps. Behind them … there's a large tree graphic on the wall and a slide where kids can play.   

Sam Eubanks, the museum’s natural sciences education specialist, leads HabitTOT Tuesdays.   

“So today we read a story called plants can’t sit still, and they’re doing leaf rubbings, so we’ve taped the leaf to the back of the piece of paper and they just color and the leaf reveals itself.”

Leah Beck of Greenville brought her two children to HabiTOT Tuesday. She says she is excited for something science based and educational for the kids.   

“I like that they catered so much to the toddlers, and just kind of teaching them at their level, because I think it's important for them to love education at a young age.”   

With more than 40 exhibits spread throughout the six-thousand square foot museum, there’s also plenty for adults to do.

“We’ve got our pirate exhibit, and this is all about the science behind piracy. So, everything from how they stayed healthy to their weaponry, to ropes and knots and their navigation.”   

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Pirate Exhibit at NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Greenville

That’s Emily Jarvis, she’s the head of the museum. We walk past a lifelike pirate ship display into a large exhibit room, full of brightly lit diagrams, interactive screens, artifacts, and animal replicas. Behind the exhibit area is the naturalist center. It resembles a classroom and has everything from fossils to preserved bugs and sea creatures.   

“So, this is a space where people can come and really engage and explore on a microscopic level all the different specimens we have in here.”   

In this center, you can use the microeye, which works like a microscope, allowing small specimens to appear on a large screen.    

“My favorite thing is to have the kids — even adults — put their hand under that microeye to look and see how clean or dirty their hands are. It is so much fun.”   

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Sam Eubanks and Emily Jarvis using the Microeye at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Greenville

After observing things up close, we stop at the astronomy lab to gaze at things from very far away.

Resembling a small movie theater, this room allows you to trek through the stars on four large, connected monitors. The main event in this room is the Open Space program, the only one like it in the United States and the second in the world.   

Open Space is a software that lets you interact with data from telescopes to see images from space and looks a little bit like Google Earth. You can simulate walking on the Moon, take a trip to the International Space Station or visit Mars.   

Brian Baker, the museum’s astronomy education specialist takes us to the edge of the visible universe. 

“And with this one we start off from the front door of the museum, and we zoom all the way out. Away from Greenville, away from North Carolina — we just leave the entire planet. There goes the moon. And pull all the way out from the solar system. And eventually we get so far away from the earth and the sun, we’re in interstellar space."

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Brian Baker in the Astronomy Lab at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Greenville

Soon, all you can see are bundles of light spots, which may seem like stars, but they’re actually galaxies. We take one more step back, and begin to see rainbow colors, which Baker explains is the first light emitted through the universe.   

“The whole history of the universe is right before us, and we can see all the way back to within a fraction of a second of the very beginning of the universe with all our cool telescopes.”   

On the walls of the astronomy lab are locally-taken astrophotography prints,

“All these pictures were taken right here in Greenville in Tim Christianson’s backyard. So, he’s an ECU professor and for a while he was really into astrophotography and he developed all this beautiful imagery.”

Jarvis says the whole point of this free museum is to make science available to everyone.

“The whole point is about accessibility. We’re hoping with this location, not only drawing people form the more rural areas but also right down the street. We want to be accessible to those who maybe never would be able to get in a car and drive all the way to Raleigh.”

And, to be centered on Eastern North Carolina.

“The thing that makes our branches unique, in the grand scheme of things, we’re not going to be teaching the same science that they are showcasing in Raleigh or that they’re showcasing in Whiteville. We have exhibits on pirates. Hey, we’re in Pirate Nation but also, right off our coast is the graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Jarvis says Pitt County is also rich in fossils, which are showcased in the Naturalist Center in the museum.

“It’s about teaching people what’s in their backyard.”

The Museum of Natural Sciences in Greenville has a counterpart at Contentnea Creek in Grifton.

The NC Museum of Natural Sciences location at Contentnea Creek offers outdoor activities like hiking and kayaking. That location also houses an observatory and a planetarium.

The Greenville and Contentnea Creek locations were already owned by A Time for Science, which has been around for many years, founded by Nancy and John Bray. The locations are now run in a partnership between A Time for Science and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

Jarvis says that with the new partnership, people have assumed the museum is now state funded. It is not.

“This is an innovative partnership, a brand-new thing that we are forging the path as we go and as we move forward. But it’s still critically important that we get support and funding from businesses and individuals to be able to keep doing this.”

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors are asked to wear a mask.   

The indoor museum is located in uptown Greenville, surrounded by restaurants, shops and breweries. There are picnic tables and convenient parking spaces outside.

“I’ve seen this area of Greenville really grow over the past few years and I think this gives families even more of a reason to explore the area and come this way.”

For more information, you can visit atimeforscience.org.

For Public Radio East, I’m Meredith Radford.

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