No-limit learning propels Discovery World

When the door to the digital theater opens, the first surprise is that the room is full of natural light. Seats face a sheet of windows, revealing Lake Michigan, Milwaukee’s lakefront festival grounds and the new Lakeshore State Park (Wisconsin’s first state park in an urban setting).

Then the wide swath of sky and water vanishes, replaced by a screen that can transport audiences from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, the Aegean Sea in the Mediterranean or another remote part of the world.

The transition goes way beyond special effects and surround sound. What exists is a high-tech connection to reality, far away but in real time. Witness deep-sea research as it occurs, for example, and ask questions of the explorers. Among the online teachers: Bob Ballard, who discovered the sunken Titanic in 1985.

The digital theater is one example of how the new Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin is breaking the rules. Settings are unpredictable. Resources are global. Learning is fun. Creativity need not be kept separate from science.

The facility is a $63.7 million investment in the future of its target audience, ages 16-27, as well as another reason for the average tourist to visit Milwaukee’s lakefront. Grand opening events are Sept. 9-10.

“If you have the right tools and motivation, you can run the world,” believes Christine Rodriguez, president and CEO. Discovery World is full of ways to nurture all ages along.

Museums document and explain the past. The mission here is to inspire and mold a new generation of dreamers and achievers, while heightening environmental awareness.

It is about letting people fulfill their curiosities instead of following a lesson plan, being lectured or memorizing details.

Two buildings make up Discovery World, which formerly was in the Milwaukee Public Museum. The Aquatarium’s focus is water and its inhabitants. The Technology Building employs nanotechnology and biomimicry, as well as robotics, computers and basic scientific principles.

Pier Wisconsin also is home to the S/V Denis Sullivan, Wisconsin’s flagship schooner, a floating classroom that is available for tours and sailings, but the vessel leaves Sept. 18 to spend winter in the Caribbean.

“We teach everything through experiences,” Christine says. This is a marriage of inventions and nature, in a setting that will be accessible to everybody. That includes Milwaukee’s inner city children, about 52 percent of whom she says have – amazingly – never seen Lake Michigan.

A full-size replica of the Challenge, a schooner called “the space shuttle of its time” in the 1800s, seems suspended in air but can be boarded and inspected. Aquatarium visitors also can touch a shark, feel what it’s like to be below water, examine exhibit pipe systems and machinery.

“We want to pull the curtain back on everything we do,” Christine says. The Liquid House teaches the value of water, by assessing how much the average person uses vs. needs.

Some of the area’s largest corporations – Johnson Controls, Rockwell Automation, Briggs & Stratton – have bought into the concepts, literally, by funding futuristic exhibits that can conduct market research as well as teach and entertain. (About $10 million of the project cost still needs to be raised.)

Discovery World attractions are described as “a restaurant where we serve, not food, but things to do.” It is learning to program your name in rain, measuring the wind, understanding why some things float and others don’t, experiencing what it is like to study life at the bottom of Lake Michigan, 300 feet below shore.

Elsewhere, a robot can be used to make a lunch box or attaché case, design a robot or vehicle, create lightning, a rain cloud or a TV spot. Learning means seeing how principles of automation apply to the Miller Park stadium roof, as well as ordinary traffic lights.

Visitors can watch how the body turns fuel into work, and how a model nuclear reactor is designed to split an atom. The HIVE (Hybrid Interactive Virtual Education) can make people feel like they’re in another time period, or a foreign weather pattern.

There are high-tech labs, too, to perform virtual surgery on an astronaut in space, or identify enzymes in your own saliva. Topics won’t be the same from one visit to the next; a summer series included the chemistry of love, “drawing as a second language,” mapping the brain to organize thoughts or unleash imagination.

Classrooms contain equipment to make product prototypes to manipulated photography. It all makes for a dizzying and unprecedented array of choices.

“What do you do with the knowledge that you gain,” Christine asks, rhetorically. Corporations have been willing partners in this endeavor because “how you build your wealth doesn’t need to be a mystery.”

Discovery World also a visually appealing space. The top-level Pilot House at the Aquatarium – with panoramic views of the water, harbor and city skyline – can seat up to 300 for dinner. Other areas are a good fit for children’s birthday parties, where themes can be about making ice cream and cola, learning aerodynamics while making rockets, creating podcasts or TV programs.

A short walk away is the Milwaukee Art Museum and its winglike Calatrava addition, thus enlarging the city’s lakefront learning campus.

An 18-month charter membership to Discovery World, 500 N. Harbor Drive, is $45 per individual, $65 per family, $15 per student. Membership includes unlimited admission, a quarterly newsletter, one-half off lab program fees and more. For more: www.discoveryworld.org, 414-765-9966.