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‘Science in the hands of kids’

Jessica Ohlig and her daughter A’Maya Ohlig, 7, of Post Falls, paid a visit to the robot during the STAR Discovery Bus tour in Coeur d’Alene on July 18. Discovery Technology’s STAR Science Center is set to open in Rathdrum in 2012. (Kathy Plonka)
Jessica Ohlig and her daughter A’Maya Ohlig, 7, of Post Falls, paid a visit to the robot during the STAR Discovery Bus tour in Coeur d’Alene on July 18. Discovery Technology’s STAR Science Center is set to open in Rathdrum in 2012. (Kathy Plonka)

Delays in construction prompt launch of portable technology exhibit

A proposed science center near Rathdrum featuring hands-on science and technology is on a roll.

After Kootenai County’s land-use permit process delayed the expected start of construction on the center, nonprofit Discover Technology launched the Discovery Bus Tour this month.

Stopping at festivals, fairs and schools in the region, the 45-foot mobile science center is giving audiences a taste of the 20,000-square-foot Science, Technology and Research (STAR) facility.

“The permit process was taking a long time, and we wanted to get science in the hands of kids sooner,” said Dennis Kimberling, education director for the nonprofit. “(The bus) helps educate people about what we are about.”

The $3 million STAR center – to be built on land owned by Paul and Lorna Finman just north of Rathdrum on Highway 41 and Willadsen Road – is expected to open in fall 2012, a year later than originally planned.

At the first hearing with planning officials in 2010, residents voiced concerns about the project. Those included an increase in traffic, Kimberling said. The delays in the project have added $700,000 in construction costs, Lorna Finman said.

“People just didn’t understand what we were doing,” Kimberling said. “Were we building a school? Were we doing scientific testing?”

Planning officials were expected to sign a conditional-use permit, which was approved by county commissioners earlier this month, on Thursday, giving the nod to move forward, an assistant with the Planning Commission said.

“We expect to start digging in August,” Lorna Finman said.

The Finmans created Discover Technology, formerly known as the North Idaho Discovery Association, several years ago to promote science and technology education in the region. The Finmans own LCF Enterprises, a Post Falls company that makes amplifiers used by the military as jamming devices.

Discover sponsors hundreds of robotics teams and provides training for teachers, equipment, and scholarships.

They announced plans in 2009 to privately fund and build the science center, featuring interactive exhibits, science labs and opportunities for students to explore robotics, molecular biology, chemistry, alternative energy and mining and agricultural technology.

“In the Northwest there are several hands-on science centers but ours is unique in that it combines the research element with the museum feel,” said Kimberling, who also teaches gifted and talented students at Lakeland Middle School and advises the robotics team there.

Kimberling said labs at the STAR center will be used by researchers, then be on display for area students to come and observe.

The Finmans have donated most of the funds for the STAR project, including the land. The delays and subsequent cost increases may cause some features to be eliminated, including a geothermal ground heating system, Finman said.

“Either way, it won’t stop the building from coming,” Finman said. “We can add features later.”

She said they grew impatient waiting for the building process to begin and looked into a mobile science unit. The bus, which cost about $60,000, is free to sponsors and schools who want it to visit, she said.

With dwindling school budgets and no money for field trips, the Discovery Bus brings hands-on math, science and technology to students.

Some of the same interactive labs the science center will provide are available on the bus, including how to use an iPod to program a robot.

“We’ll get the science center rolling with a big bang,” Kimberling said. “And then roll on into classrooms.”



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