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6 Alabama science centers that make learning a blast

Kiddos enjoy hands-on fun at the kinetic sands table at the Cook Museum of Natural Science. | Photo courtesy Cook Museum of Natural Science Kiddos enjoy hands-on fun at the kinetic sands table at the Cook Museum of Natural Science. | Photo courtesy Cook Museum of Natural Science

The kids may be back in school, but that doesn’t mean families can’t take a few field trips of their own. These six interactive science centers across Alabama help those book smarts leap right off the page using high-tech and high touch in the most engaging ways. Fill fall weekends with sea life, robots, rain forests, spaceships, and much more.

1. Cook Museum of Natural Science, Decatur

You’ll need a flashlight to walk through the cave experience at the Cook Museum of Natural Science. | Photo courtesy Cook Museum of Natural Science

You’ll need a flashlight to walk through the cave experience at the Cook Museum of Natural Science. | Photo courtesy Cook Museum of Natural Science

Build a towering mountain out of kinetic sand and watch snow dust its peaks. Or sweep a desert valley into existence and see how quickly the earth dries after a passing rainstorm. The educational projections shining down on the Cook Museum of Natural Science’s sand table let visitors build biomes, investigate how terrains change, watch a volcano erupt, and see how the elements take their toll on a landscape. The projection is one of dozens of family-friendly exhibits at the Decatur museum, which opened in 2019 with hands-on exhibits at its heart. “The exhibits are very visual, tactile. You’re not just reading,” says Marketing Manager Mike Taylor. “A lot of museums say ‘Don’t touch.’ Here, it’s the opposite.” Aimed at kids ages 4–12, the Cook features a crawl-through cave system; live insects and reptile ambassadors; and a coral habitat inside a 15,000-gallon saltwater aquarium. (Don’t miss the chance to digitally build your own seashell!) In all, the Cook encompasses 62,000 square feet of exhibit space and earlier this year won the USA Today readers’ choice award for best new museum.

2. Red Mountain Makers, Birmingham

Do your interests lean more tech than bio? Public workshops at Red Mountain Makers give visitors the chance to build their own microcontrollers—basic, electronic brains that can control anything from LED displays to wearables to ... the sky’s the limit! Experts walk newbies through the basics with simple kits, but all projects are welcome, says museum member Steve Wyss, who visits regularly and teaches electrical engineering professionally. “It’s anything from ‘How do I make this blink?’ to ‘Hey! I’m building a robot,’ ” Wyss says. “We never know what’s going to happen.” And that’s just a fraction of the skills and expertise on offer at the collaborative workspace. Other intermittent programming includes introductions to leatherwork, woodturning, ceramics, and even a forging class taught by a master blacksmith. Red Mountain Makers opens to the public three nights a week, though members have greater access. Children younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

3. Dauphin Island Sea Lab

A camper gets an up-close look at a ghost crab at Dauphin Island Sea Lab. | Photo courtesy Dauphin Island Sea Lab

A camper gets an up-close look at a ghost crab at Dauphin Island Sea Lab. | Photo courtesy Dauphin Island Sea Lab

Recently named the official aquarium of Alabama, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab has long helped visitors understand the state’s diverse coastal landscapes. Think touch pools, marsh boardwalks, and interactive exhibits. But its newest program—weekend-long family camps—takes guests even closer to the Gulf Coast’s wild side. Discover marine habitats aboard the Alabama Discovery Research Vessel. Examine bottom-of-the-food-chain plankton under microscopes. Adventure through watery habitat by kayak and hunt ghost crabs by night under the guidance of a marine specialist. “It’s not just for kids. Adults love it as well,” says Public Relations Director Angela Levins. “It’s like a summer camp for families.” The next camp, which includes accommodation and food, takes place October 22–24. Spaces are limited. For those without a full weekend to spare, the Alabama Discovery sails on 2-hour trips when there’s demand. And the lab’s Science Fridays and Ocean Explorer Saturdays focus on hands-on, outdoor fun.

4. Exploreum Science Center, Mobile

Spot grizzlies, coastal wolves, sea otters, and the all-white spirit bear in one of the world’s largest intact temperate rain forests on Canada’s remote Pacific coast. Or search for climate clues underground in Iceland, France, and the Yucatan Peninsula with a paleoclimatologist and a cave explorer. Visitors may sit in the giant-screen dome theater, but a new state-of-the-art upgrade with vivid 6K resolution and high-fidelity sound system immerses them in worlds few humans ever see. The Mobile science center unveiled its epic theater renovations just a few months before the pandemic hit. Visitors for this fall’s debuts of “Great Bear Rainforest” and “Ancient Caves” will be able to test-drive the new setup. In the Exploreum’s exhibition space, look for live-animal and chemistry demos and seasonal exhibits like “Chambers of Fear: The Science of Phobias,” or reserve time on the new 3-D printer.

5. University of Alabama Observatory, Tuscaloosa

Visitors can see into infinity and beyond at the University of Alabama Observatory. | Photo by William C. Keel

Visitors can see into infinity and beyond at the University of Alabama Observatory. | Photo by William C. Keel

At the University of Alabama Observatory, things are looking up … waaaay up. This fall brings the return of some monthly in-person viewing sessions—on hold since the pandemic—with opportunities to view the heavens. Watch giant Jupiter and the surreally ice-ringed Saturn through the university’s in-dome research telescope. Or opt to search the night sky through a new-to-the-public series of outdoor telescopes. “Their large eyepieces couple very well to cell phone cameras, so people get their own digital souvenirs,” says astronomy Professor Bill Keel. At an observation and lore session on November 9, celestial aficionados can also learn how the ancient builders of nearby Moundville, the archaeological site once important to the Mississippian culture, interpreted the stars.

6. U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville

Did you know that you can see state-of-the-art digital laser images of the solar system on a 67-foot dome screen at the Intuitive Planetarium at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center? | Photo courtesy U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Did you know that you can see state-of-the-art digital laser images of the solar system on a 67-foot dome screen at the Intuitive Planetarium at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center? | Photo courtesy U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Travel to the top of the Saturn V rocket for launch and emerge onto the moon, just like the Apollo 11 astronauts did more than a half-century ago. The “Apollo 11 Virtual Reality” experience, which uses a stationary headset to simulate the journey, is the latest exhibit at Huntsville’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center to transport visitors to outer space. The attraction debuted in 2019 to celebrate the mission’s 50th anniversary. “It proved to be so popular, we’ve continued offering it,” says Senior Director of Communications Patricia Ammons. Guests can walk along the bottom of a tank to feel what it’s like to move around in microgravity. Other underwater adventures simulate space, the ocean, and even dinosaur encounters. For a sit-down experience, visit the Intuitive Planetarium, which projects the latest images from the Mars Perseverance rover inside the 67-foot dome.

Travel journalist Jessica Fender would have been a scientist, but lab coat–white washes her out. She chronicles her globe-trotting experiments throughout the South and beyond on Instagram @TravelerBroads. 

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AAA travel alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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