Wheelchair accessible van at Grandfather Mountain

Science Museums Enhance Educational Experiences for All
North Carolina's American Rescue Plan funds are helping 55 science museums and nature parks improve their programming, facilities, and access

Author: Jessie Holmes

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Grandfather Mountain experienced record visitation. People escaped to the nature park, famous for its Mile High Swinging Bridge, seeking fresh air, exercise, and unique experiences. Attendance increased by nearly 30% from 2019 to 2021. But not everyone could take part.

Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain
More private and school groups can now travel Grandfather Mountain together, including the Mile High Swinging Bridge, thanks to its investment in a wheelchair-accessible shuttle. 

“We had groups who would approach us about visiting, but unfortunately if they had people who were in wheelchairs, they couldn’t fully experience the entire mountain,” says Margaret Thiele, Vice President of Development for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.

While Grandfather Mountain had long offered shuttles for groups that booked visits, its vehicles couldn’t accommodate wheelchair users. At best, they could be transported around the mountain separately from their family or classmates. During special events that required shuttles, they couldn’t participate at all. Then in 2023, Grandfather Mountain purchased its first wheelchair-accessible van with the help of more than $144,000 from the North Carolina Science Museums Grant Program.

In March, it enabled the Mayland Community College Life Skills program to bring its entire class for the first time, including one student in a wheelchair. The Life Skills program helps adults with developmental disabilities become more independent, which includes providing them with new experiences – like braving America’s highest suspension footbridge.

“It opens worlds of opportunity,” says Carol Holden, who leads the Life Skills program. “Especially for students who are low income and transportation issues are a big deal to them.”

COVID-19 Funds Boost Annual Science Museums Grant Program

The North Carolina Science Museums Grant Program was established through state legislation to invest in STEM-based museums and other attractions that provide educational opportunities to the public. When the state received funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal COVID-19 relief package, the General Assembly allocated an extra $6.3 million towards the program to help museums recover lost revenue and improve their facilities.

“This money was in addition to the state funding, and in many cases two to three times what a museum would usually receive annually,” says Darrell Stover, who leads the North Carolina Science Museums Grant Program at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Without the extra funding, it may have been several more years before Grandfather Mountain could purchase its new shuttle, or the new ADA-compliant utility vehicle it uses for smaller groups with limited mobility during behind-the-scenes experiences.

“This is not a place that’s just for people who can go on a rugged hike,” says John Caveny, Grandfather Mountain’s Director of Conservation and Education. “We hope by having these new opportunities that we can serve people of all abilities.”

Aurora Fossil Museum Invests in the Visitor Experience

Students at Aurora Fossil Museum
The Aurora Fossil Museum invested its grant in hand washing stations near its fossil pit, as well as larger capital improvements such as a new HVAC system, display cases, and staff wages.

On the coast, the Aurora Fossil Museum invested its $173,000 grant in nearly every aspect of the visitor experience, including new museum display cases, updated HVAC systems to improve comfort, staff wages, and even hand washing stations due to the messy nature of its most popular attraction.

“We go through a lot of glass cleaner and vacuum cleaners because they go out in the pits and fossil hunt and come into the museum to identify what they find,” says Executive Director Cynthia Crane.

The small town of Aurora is home to a phosphate mine, which donates to the museum unused sediment exposed during the mining process, creating mounds of exploration for visitors. The museum’s fossil pits are free, and diggers can keep what they find, including the remains of ancient marine life. Inside, visitors learn about the region’s natural history, like the impossible-to-miss giant teeth from the now extinct megalodon, the largest shark species to have existed. They once swam where the museum sits today. It’s the kind of lesson kids may learn in a book but only fully appreciate after an in-person experience.

“Small museums have a big foothold in North Carolina’s education system and the career pipeline,” says Crane. “We educate children and youth in an informal way so they can build confidence and think about science or STEM careers, or different things outside of their normal everyday environment.”

A Stronger Future for STEM Education

The Aurora Fossil Museum is now in the planning stages of its largest expansion yet, an endeavor that wouldn’t be possible without the educational and economic value it continues to bring to the region. In its first year, Grandfather Mountain’s new accessible shuttle has been used for several private groups, and nine mountain-wide events, including Grandfather Glows – which was previously inaccessible to wheelchair users. It anticipates more trips in 2024 as awareness grows.

In total, 55 science centers have benefitted from the state’s American Rescue Plan funds. Stover has been to each one, a perk of leading the grant program, and is excited about the positive impacts he’s already seen, and the improvements yet to be completed.

“When we start talking about, you know, flexing our muscles again after coming out of COVID, to be able to do that and provide even newer experiences is a primary example of resilience,” says Stover.

He looks forward to your visit.

Plan a visit to Grandfather Mountain 

Explore the Aurora Fossil Museum

Related Topics: