Thursday, September 23, 2021
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Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum & Thinkwell create “NatureQuest” immersive learning environment for children

Photo: Thinkwell. Copyright All rights reserved by Thinkwell2011
Museum-of-the-Future Design Incorporates Early-Adopter Technology in Unique Ways for an Interactive Experience for the Entire Family
(Burbank, CA) –Fernbank Museum of Natural History and Thinkwell Group, a full-service experiential design and development firm, have spent the past four years collaborating to create and install Fernbank NatureQuest, a fully immersive exhibit for children ages 3 to 9, which opens March 19 at the museum. The $8 million children’s exhibition will offer Fernbank’s youngest visitors a different kind of museum experience with more than 100 interactive encounters to explore in a nature-inspired environment filled with live animals and hands-on learning activities.
Unlike traditional children’s exhibits, Fernbank NatureQuest appeals to a child’s sense of discovery and engages all the senses, using sound, touch, and sight rather than didactic text to immerse kids in the natural world.  The end result is a unique 7,000 sq. foot space with many layers of content and activities for young children of all learning levels, as well as their families, that creates an experience much more sophisticated and immersive than traditional museum exhibits geared toward children.  As children explore the habitats of Georgia, what might seem like play is actually a rich educational experience.
“We put a lot of research into the type of exhibit that would help spark an interest in nature in our young members and we identified Thinkwell as the firm to help us realize our goals. They really partnered with us on this project, ultimately being as devoted to the overarching educational elements as to the fun, dynamic and inspirational activities that fill the environment,” said Fernbank’s Senior Vice President and Chief Programming Officer, Jennifer Grant Warner. “Fernbank is a young museum and Thinkwell is a young, energetic firm. We saw eye-to-eye on the potential for something that hadn’t yet been tackled in the museum world. We have succeeded in harnessing the same level of immersiveness and wonder involved in a theatrical performance or theme park while maintaining the sophisticated educational experience visitors expect from our museum.”
Photo: Thinkwell. Copyright All rights reserved by Thinkwell2011
“One of Fernbank’s main initiatives is the GET REAL campaign, which aims to bring families and museum visitors together through realistic experiences and activities,” said Craig Hanna, chief creative officer, Thinkwell. “We worked with Fernbank to incorporate rich detail, hands-on activities and technology in subtle ways to create a realistic, natural environment that not only excites children about going to the museum and learning, but also about discovering the world around them.”
The Fernbank-Thinkwell alliance added Orlando-based fabrication company The Nassal Company to the team early in the design process to ensure the unique immersive environments envisioned would be built efficiently and within budget.  The entire process strategically combined traditional hands-on activities with a variety of embedded technology to produce over 50 distinct interactive-participation elements within the immersive exhibit. Seamlessly integrated within the space, examples include activities such as a magnetic bee table where children can guide bees to the flowers and then back home to the hive, as well as Thinkwell’s innovative “Magic Mirrors,” utilizing RFID technology that allows children to pick up an object (i.e. a seed), hold it close to a monitor and watch it trigger a “magic mirror” revealing the object’s natural progression (i.e. the seed turning into a plant).  
Another example is Fernbank NatureQuest’s augmented reality binoculars, which feature a pop-up video within the viewscreen with substantive information about whatever object is seen through the binoculars.  In addition to the discrete interactive components, the entire environment is a learning opportunity; the trees vary by ecological zone, the sounds of animals are different depending upon ‘where’ in Georgia a child is standing and even the rocks vary by region.

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Fernbank NatureQuest has been uniquely designed in such a way that it’s easy for Fernbank to update various aspects of the surroundings and media to keep the exhibit fresh and engaging over time. The exhibit will be home to five species of live animals, all of which are native to Georgia, including terrapin turtles, baby alligators, green anoles, yellow rat snakes and salamanders. The live animals as well as the featured resident species in each zone can be swapped out to incorporate new ones, and forestry signs and challenge cards throughout the exhibit can also be updated accordingly. 
Interesting Facts: Fernbank NatureQuest
  • Six iconic ecosystems that are representative of Georgia and the southeast are featured in the space 
  • The exhibit features 14 Georgia state symbols
·         More than 345 uniquely created graphics are used throughout the exhibit 
·         There are 34 individual custom animal sculptures
·         A total of 380 animal tracks from 11 different species have been embedded within the floor of the exhibit
  • A total of 15 tree species are represented.  Fernbank’s scientists worked with Thinkwell to locate and create molds of actual tree bark—some from the museum’s own Fernbank Forest– for the exhibition.
  • Thinkwell’s scenic vendor installed 709 individual corals, sponges, barnacles and other organisms in the Ocean and Estuary ecosystem, representing 15 different species
  • The exhibit accounts for approximately 570 million years in geologic time, including Recent, Pleistocene Ice Age, Eocene Period, Late Cretaceous Period, Early Paleozoic Era, and the Precambrian.
 Thinkwell, a company well-versed in combining education with immersive entertainment, has also been involved in such renowned guest experiences as Sesame Street Presents: The Body, a traveling exhibit designed to encourage healthy habits, scientific thinking and learning through exploratory play; and the award-winning Jurassic Park Institute Tour, also a travelling exhibition that aimed to educate visitors about paleontology and contemporary dinosaur discoveries. 
About Thinkwell Group
Thinkwell, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, is a full-service experiential design and development firm that collaborates with its clients to envision, strategize and create immersive, one-of-a-kind guest experiences. Thinkwell develops and produces attractions, master plans, brand experiences, exhibits, live shows, environments, multimedia and digital integration. The company has become a leader in experiential design by bringing a unique holistic approach to every creative engagement, delivering extraordinary results to notable clients over the years, including Fortune 500 companies, studios, museums, theme parks and destination resorts. The multi- disciplinary company is comprised of the following core areas of expertise: Thinkwell Design & Production, Thinkwell Development, Thinkwell Project Management and Studio Thinkwell.
Thinkwell’s range of work includes master planning for Warner Bros., Universal, MGM and Paramount as well as attractions such as Sesame Street Presents: The Body, Universal 360 – A Cinesphere Spectacular; the Show at the Pier Shops at Caesar’s Atlantic City; and the Snow Play Zone at Ski Dubai. Thinkwell is based in Burbank, CA, with offices in Dubai UAE.
About Fernbank Museum of Natural History
Since 1992 Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History has provided a gateway for discovery and exploration for all ages, unfolding the story of the earth’s history, the environment and human culture through exhibitions, dynamic programs, and films in the IMAX® Theatre.  Fernbank’s reputation for innovative programming continues to rise, with established programs for families, schools and Scouts, including the award-winning UrbanWatch Atlanta, where students engage in urban environmental monitoring programs led a Fernbank ecologist, and City Scientists, an after-school program offered in conjunction with Atlanta Public Schools.  
Fernbank is accredited by the American Association of Museums and is regarded as “Atlanta’s Home to Dinosaurs,” a reputation highlighted by Giants of the Mesozoic, featuring the world’s largest dinosaurs. Fernbank is also home to a collection of one million artifacts from the first Spanish mission site in Georgia, and has earned national recognition for its archaeological discovery and research of a rare Hernando de Soto encampment site in South Georgia. fernbankmuseum.org.

Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin ([email protected]) is a leading journalist, publicist, strategist, blogger, content marketing specialist and connector in the international attractions industry. She excels at writing about all aspects of design and technical design, production and project management. Areas of special interest include AV integration and show control, lighting design and acoustics, specialty cinema, digital video and world’s fairs. Judith has ties to numerous industry organizations. From 2005-2020 she ran communications, publications and social media for the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). In 2013, she was honored with the TEA Service Award. She was development director of IMERSA, and co-chair of the 2014 IMERSA Summit. She was publicist for the Large Format Cinema Association in the 1990s, now part of the Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) and has also contributed to the publications of PLASA, IAAPA and the International Planetarium Society. Already making her mark as a magazine and book editor, Judith joined World’s Fair magazine in 1987, which introduced her to the attractions industry. Launching as a freelancer in the mid 1990s she has contributed to dozens of publications and media outlets including Funworld, Lighting&Sound America, Sound & Communications, Urban Land, The Raconteur and The Planetarian. She joined InPark in 2010. Judith earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute. She has lived in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area, and now makes her home in Saint Louis, where she is active in the local arts and theater community.

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