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27 Things to love about Alabama: The McWane Center

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Did you really go to school in Alabama if you never got sent on a field trip here?

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Right in the middle of downtown Birmingham is a giant historic building (once a department store) that has, over the years, been remade into a megaplex of science and learning. The McWane Center came from the merging of two Birmingham-based museums— The Red Mountain Museum and the Discovery Place— in 1991. It was initially named Discovery 2000, but after receiving overwhelming financial support from the McWane family (one of the largest manufacturers of water and sewer piping in the world, and also a major funding source of the Vulcan in Birmingham), it received it’s new name and opened to the public in 1998.

With all of that comes a conglomeration of exhibits that will keeps kids (and honestly adults too) entertained and engaged all day. There’s the Science Quest exhibit on the main floor, which is full of all kinds contraptions and gizmos to build, play, or mess with— anything from being able to lay on a bed of nails to building a laser maze with mirrors to configuring robots to playing soccer on a greenscreen.

There’s also the IMAX dome theater, where 280 people can lean back as a 5-story, 79-foot diameter dome plays films and documentaries highlighting a number of educational topics come to life. And while it is cool to feel like you’re actually under the ocean and swimming with the sharks on the big screen, the coolest part is before and after the films when you can see through the screen and marvel at all the internals behind the dome.

On the lower level of the center is the World of Water aquarium, which has freshwater exhibits of Alabama wildlife as well as an area where you can pet sharks and rays. On the 2nd floor is the legacy of the Red Mountain Museum, an exhibit that houses fossils, gemstones, and Native American artifacts from the state of Alabama. This includes a fossil of the appalachiosaurus (AKA the Alabama T-Rex).

The third floor is more fluid, with seasonal exhibits. I’ve seen it be all engineering based, with bridge-building simulators and electrical circuit wiring basics. I’ve also seen it as a giant paper plane test facility.

Finally, there’s the Challenger Learning Center, a space shuttle simulation that is in memory of the Challenger flight 51-L crew.

Growing up in Alabama, I couldn’t even count how many times I went here on field trips... And how many more times my parents took me back. It really was a formative place in my childhood.

All of that said, though, the one part of the whole museum that sticks out the most to me was the Vulcan’s Dream machine in the lobby.

I would sit and watch this thing go perpetually for 15-minutes on end. The ball bouncing off of the wooden acoustics at the 41-second mark in the video would echo from the lobby all the way in to the main exhibits, and, quite honestly, that sound still echoes in my brain at random moments today.