WRITTEN BY: Marshall V. King
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: Marshall V. King
PUBLISHED BY: South Bend Tribune
ELKHART — The new ETHOS Science Center has holograms, robotics labs and augmented reality stations in a science museum.
In May, nearly every school day will mean field trips of local students coming to use the facility to learn more about science and its role in their lives and future employment.
In a few of the corners, students can learn about how science and Elkhart history are intertwined. How a woman named Helen Free was a leading scientist nationally. How Alka-Seltzer helped people with headaches and upset stomachs.
Many of the students coming to the ETHOS Science Center, at 1025 N. Michigan Street, may not already know what Alka-Seltzer is, much less the story of how it was invented in Elkhart.
They may not know that Miles Laboratories and other businesses in town produced aspirin and vitamins and provided jobs to generations of employees.
Miles eventually became part of Bayer Corp. The campus on the northeast side of Elkhart was home to both for decades before Bayer left Elkhart entirely in the last several years.
Now, ETHOS, which was formed in 2001, is ready to open its newly revamped science center in a building that once housed Bayer and was donated to ETHOS by the company.
But $8.2 million was needed to renovate 65,000 square feet and add another 35,000 square feet of warehouse space, according to Patsy Boehler, ETHOS executive director.
The South Bend-Elkhart Regional Development Authority approved a $532,000 grant. The Elkhart City Council unanimously approved matching it. The Community Foundation of Elkhart County offered a $1 million matching grant, plus some other funds. (For full disclosure, I’ve done work for both, but didn’t write this column on their behalf.) So far, $7 million has been raised.
The construction is nearly complete on what will be called the ETHOS Innovation Center powered by Thor Industries. The recreational vehicle manufacturer purchased naming rights for the building.
Inside, Boehler and others, including former Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Mark Mow, have been cleaning and preparing for this past weekend’s opening.
Donors and dignitaries got a look Thursday. Open houses Friday night and Saturday attracted others to a remarkable place where futures can take root.
Since leaving Bayer in 1995, Boehler has led the charge to continue science education. Without her, the conversation of how Elkhart city and county schools should tackle Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math education, better known by the STEAM acronym, would look very different.
Boehler has been an advocate, a resource, and a leader on ensuring that science education didn’t end even though science companies left Elkhart and Indiana cut funding for schools.
When Gov. Eric Holcomb visited Elkhart in November to tout his legislative agenda, he was set to spend just 15 minutes in the robotics lab at ETHOS, where the press conference took place. He was there around one and a half hours, Boehler said.
Their conversation about the lack of funding for science education surprised him and an increase in the funding formula happened a short time later, she said, noting that she isn’t sure there was a direct connection.
Holcomb is touting how the science center is the kind of thing that Indiana needs to move forward. In an era of shrinking school budgets, a massive, well-designed center that is the result of a public-private partnership is now available to help local students learn skills they’ll need for the modern workforce.
Robotics labs are busy every evening, said Boehler. In addition, students can learn CAD or coding in one room and record YouTube videos across the hall. A hands-on museum includes an inflatable planetarium that can hold up to 30 people, as well as other exhibits.
The building isn’t limited to public school students or the Elkhart school board that may meet there regularly. Homeschoolers and people with disabilities are regularly using the facilities. Perhaps even more exciting is that Lippert Components has its robotics employees in the building and other Elkhart manufacturers are not only making donations, but also exploring possible partnerships.
Boehler hopes students can explore how to meld Elkhart’s entrepreneurial spirit with science to create new companies instead of only talking about Bayer or Whitehall Laboratories.
“Our kids here are just as smart and have just as much potential as anywhere in the world,” she said.
Now they also have a new science center in which to harness both.