Exploring surroundings: New eco-museum aims to offer fun learning environment

BUFORD - In a museum with water guns, a huge spitting frog and an interactive fountain, officials hope kids won't just get wet - they'll get soaked.

The county's new Environmental and Heritage Center will open to the public in a week with the theme "Soak up the Science."

"It's intended to be wet and fun," said Sheila Fowler, spokeswoman for the facility.

Offering the first glimpse of the center to the media Friday, Fowler and education program supervisor Catherine Long showed off interactive exhibits that teach about water pressure, the forms of water in solids, liquids and gases and even how a sewage treatment plant works.

Stations throughout the facility will allow kids to learn while doing one of their favorite activities - video games.

"The educational value of this new center for the people of Gwinnett County is just tremendous, in heritage and historical leaning as well as hands-on science," said Jason West, the chairman of the center's foundation. "Everybody from kindergarten to the doctoral level can find something to enjoy and explore here."

Displays talk about the history of water and its uses in Gwinnett County, and a 10-minute video uses technology like a water screen to introduce people to the ways that water shape both the history and geography of Georgia.

In fact, the entire building is a testament to the environment. Constructed east-to-west to allow most of the lighting to come from the sun, the building is heated and cooled by a waterfall running underneath a bridge in the center of the building, and plants on the roof control stormwater, lessening the likelihood of erosion. The stones used for the exterior are recycled gravestones.

Inside, the restrooms use special plumbing to bring treated wastewater into the toilets instead of drinking water, and urinals in the men's room are waterless.

"Our building is a teaching tool itself," Long said.

In addition to the exhibits, a lecture hall and a lab along with classrooms downstairs are fitted with the top technology to allow research and distance learning.

"We think we've got what it takes to be a top-notch addition to the cultural, recreational and educational mix in metro Atlanta," Center Director Steve Cannon said. "We want to be a favorite place where people can come to enjoy, explore and care for the total environment and heritage of Gwinnett County."

On Friday, workers were finishing some last-minute details and working to still build the Rivers to Reefs exhibit.

On Thursday, the critters that will call the heritage center home - hermit crabs, a turtle, an alligator and more - will arrive.

In a week, the public can get a free peek at the $16.6 million building and the $3 million worth of exhibits. An open house will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Field trips will begin the next week.

The center, located on more than 200 acres of greenspace off Plunketts Road in Buford, will also be open to the public with prices of $7 for county residents and $10 for others. It can also be booked for Boy Scout events, weddings, lectures and corporate events.

For more information on the center, go to www.gwinnettehc.com.