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Faculty member builds 3D geology cave

A heavy steel gate with holes just large enough for a bat to fit through guards the entrance to a dark tunnel framed with distressed wooden beams. The tunnel winds and turns to reveal walls of colorful, fluorescent minerals. This mine tunnel is not underground though. It's an exhibit at the new Eureka! McConnell Science Museum.

Instructor of Geology and Biology Jonathan Cooley has spent the last few months designing and building the 300-square-foot geology mine tunnel exhibit. Paying extra attention to the details: dragging wooden beams behind his pick-up truck so they looked battered and distressed, grinding up muscovite mica to blow onto the cave walls and tracking down ochre paint, which is the perfect shade of acid mine drainage.

“I try to focus on the fun details of a mine so there’s a flavor of authenticity in there,” said Cooley.

This is one of many hands-on exhibits created for the 14,000-square-foot museum, which is housed in CMU’s new engineering building, Confluence Hall. Eureka! replaces the John McConnell Math and Science Center which for many years was located in New Emerson Elementary School.

Cooley is one of a few CMU faculty working on exhibits for Eureka! Associate Professor of Biology Kyle McQuade and Amanda McQuade are working on the biology exhibit, which includes a sculpture of a cactus-pollinating bat, the same bat that in real-life would use the holes in the mine gate to enter and exit the cave.

“It’s a cross-pollination between the biology and geology departments,” said Cooley.

The mine tunnel also includes a realistic fault line in the ceiling, donated mineral samples excavated from a mine that opened in the 1700s in Franklin, New Jersey, and donated florescent lights that are on par with larger museums. The cave also features authentic drill bits from Cooley’s personal collection. “Jenn Moore (Eureka! executive director) has been really great with trusting me and giving me creative license.”

Along with faculty involvement, the museum will also offer 32 paid internships for CMU students from the engineering department to the teacher education and biology programs. “Turned into more of a partnership than anyone expected,” Cooley said. “It’s been a wonderful, collaborative adventure between educators, volunteers, engineers and students.”

Eureka!, designed to spark and nurture interest in the sciences for K-8 graders, hosted its grand opening on March 10.