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Education centers offer enlightenment, break from heat

Staff Contributor

Even though school is out, the learning doesn't have to end.

Instead of battling the heat and crowds at amusement parks or beaches, some summer vacationers are seeking indoor recreational refuge. While the Southeast heat is on more than ever in states like Florida, a visit to a science center or environmental research reserve is an excellent alternative to crowded tourist magnets like Walt Disney World.

If you need a break from the summer vacation rat race, then look no further than a trip to an education center.

Discovering science

on the Emerald Coast

After several hours of baking on the white hot sand on northwest Florida's Santa Rosa Beach recently, my wife Brooke, daughter Caitlin and I were in the mood for something different. We hopped in the car and drove about a half hour to Fort Walton Beach, where we stumbled upon the Emerald Coast Science Center. This simple yet informative museum is full of hands-on exhibits that children of all ages will love.

Caitlin was fascinated with the science center's electricity and wind tunnel exhibit, where she received a lesson in transformers, inductors, diodes and transistors. The Van De Graff Electricity Generator and Wind Tunnel left the biggest impression on her. This generator shows how lightning and sparks are formed through the discharge of static electricity.

The "wow factor" didn't end there. Caitlin was practically breathless when she experienced the wind tunnel. She had the opportunity to fly a model aircraft inside this amazing contraption, which was constructed by the Air Force Association.

The hands-on learning continues at the Emerald Coast Science Center's Hall of Life exhibit. Full-size models show visitors how the human body fits together. The Mr. Bones model uses a large skeleton riding a bike to illustrate how the human skeletal system works. A food pyramid, stomach model and microscopes show how human cells are formed.

While the hands-on exhibits were a hit with Caitlin, it was the "Bill Nye the Science Guy" videos that were most memorable for her. An area dedicated to Nye videos attracted her and other children like magnets. For those who aren't in the loop, Nye gets kids interested in science with his fun yet informative presentations. Caitlin has been a big fan ever since the first grade, when her elementary school began showing them.

It was tough to pull Caitlin away from the gift shop. After begging us for the store's science kit or a Pet Tornado, we settled on a collection of exotic rocks.

We hit the beach for one more day on that trip, but it was the trip to the Emerald Coast Science Center that made the vacation worthwhile.

Northeast Florida's

environmental commitment

On the heels of the Emerald Coast vacation, we jumped to the other side of the state for a visit to the Ponte Vedra Beach area. Just like in our northwest Florida trip, we needed a break from the beach. So, on the advice of locals in the area, we took a trip to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The name is a mouthful, but don't let that intimidate you. The reserve's Environmental Education Center is a real treat. Opened just two years ago, this state-of-the-art facility features interpretive exhibits, aquariums, a luxurious theater, a gift store and an outdoor amphitheater. Since it is set on the Guana River Marsh Aquatic Preserve, this environmental center offers spectacular views of northeast Florida's environment.

It goes without saying that Caitlin loved the research reserve, with its myriad of hands-on displays, live animal exhibits and, especially, a scavenger hunt.

The reserve is committed to educating visitors about endangered species in the area, as well as something even more pressing these days - water resources.

If you get a bit of cabin fever and are ready to get back outside, there is plenty to see in the area. Just outside of the education center's doors is an environmental wonderland. Visitors can spend hours exploring nature trails, fishing the estuary or frolicking on the nearby beach.

Whether you're walking, hiking or biking, you are guaranteed to see incredible plant and animal life on the Guana Tolomato Matanzas' trails. Wax myrtle, Spanish moss and live oak trees are just a few of the plants that will remind you you're truly in northeast Florida.

It's no secret that fishing is popular throughout Florida, and the nearby Guana River dam area is open to the sport. In this estuary, you'll find blue crab, flounder, red drum, spotted sea trout, sheepshead and shrimp.

You can get your "beach fix" after visiting the Environmental Education Center by visiting the pristine beaches near Florida's A1A coastal highway. During the spring and summer, sea turtles are more likely to be spotted. During the winter months, whales are commonly found offshore.

More info

•Emerald Coast Science Center

www.escience.org

•Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve

www.gtmerr.org

•Florida Coasts

www.floridacoasts.org

Education Center Facts

•The Emerald Coast Science Center is located in a waterfront park right on the sound in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

•The Emerald Coast Science Center is the only museum dedicated fully to science in northern Florida, from Jacksonville, Fla., to Mobile, Ala.

•Boy and Girl Scouts, home-schoolers and science camps are all offered to participate in programs through the Emerald Coast Science Center.

•The Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve is a preserved area in northeast Florida that was designated in 1999.

•The Guana Tolomato Matanzas' Environmental Education Center is a $6.2-million, 21,000-square-foot facility.

Source: Emerald Coast Science Center