The Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota gives young children a chance to explore a rock quarry, operate a movable crane, handle woodworking tools and design their own circuit boards out of Legos. These are just a few of the fun, educational, and hands-on opportunities that expose kids to the world of manufacturing.
Opened in 2006, the Mankato-based museum helps school-age children also explore agriculture, the arts, history, and the region’s culture. Intending to “ignite the natural curiosity of every child through play in a dynamic, awe-inspiring environment,” the museum teaches kids about the world around them. It receives around 100,000 visitors every year and is staffed by 40 full- and part-time employees.
Manufacturing is a core emphasis of the museum, according to Sue Larsen, director of community outreach and impact. She says this emphasis is due in part to a Minnesota Legacy Fund grant that required the museum to promote the history and development of its region—in which manufacturing has played a significant role over the past 200 years.
“Manufacturing is a key part of our community’s story,” Larsen says. “From the very beginning, [we] recognized its part in our history and that is why we feature it so prominently at the museum.”
Larsen points to “Cecil’s Imagineering Loft,” named after Cecil Jones, a prominent local entrepreneur and inventor. Students use the loft to explore building, cutting, designing, painting, molding and more, and are also challenged to create their own inventions using copies of Jones’ original work notebooks.
“Not only do we offer manufacturing experiences, but we share a little bit about Cecil Jones and the importance he played in our community,” Larsen says.
About 8,000 school-age visitors come to the museum every year for guided field trips, according to Deb Johnson, senior director of museum experiences and environments. Second graders participate in a “matter in motion” field trip at the museum’s quarry, which features stones quarried only a mile up the road, while third graders participate in an engineering challenge.
“They’re using an engineering notebook from a real inventor to experience an engineering process, and it’s really about teamwork,” Johnson says. “Sometimes, when you’re a third-grader, it doesn’t always work, but failure is an important part of the process.”
The museum also co-hosts a yearly two-day event called “Dig It!” with area partners in construction, utilities, landscaping and manufacturing sectors. The first day is an “education” day, which gives around 900 students from grades 8-12 the opportunity to talk to experts in the different represented fields, and a second day that is open to the public. Certified operators help children operate heavy machinery, participate in welding simulators, learn how an electric motor works and watch the construction of electrical circuits. All the while, other visitors learn about building sustainable communities and trade industry careers.
The four-year-old Dig It! program evolved after the manufacturing and trades businesses in the area voiced a need for community involvement, Johnson says.
“It was really the trades coming to us to say, ‘We’d love to provide the funding for you to do this event because we need to get information to high school students and their parents on alternatives to a four-year college,’” she says. “A trade school or apprenticeship is an excellent way to get into a career.”
Museum CEO Louise Dickmeyer says the hands-on experience Dig It! offers is crucial to help kids—no matter their age—learn more about the world around them and the opportunities they have for their own careers. She recalls a high school teacher sharing how the Dig It! event transformed a student’s outlook on his potential.
“He sensed that he didn’t have what it took to get through school,” Dickmeyer recalls. “But after exploring a number of different construction initiatives, he went back to his teacher and said, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to be able to get through high school.’ It gave him a vision and a purpose and a reason to drive a little bit harder. It was such a testament to how powerful a day at Dig It! can be.”
Featured story in the Summer 2020 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine.