Thursday morning, Curtis Wolf, director of the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, welcomed Chamber of Commerce members from Ellinwood and Great Bend, as well as representatives from Fort Hays State University and local philanthropic organizations who gathered at the KWEC for a ribbon cutting of several new interactive exhibits now open to the public. The occasion marked the first major exhibit change since the KWEC was dedicated nine-and-a-half years ago.
“It’s with great pride that I can say that our facility has come a very long way with our mission of educating people about wetlands, about Cheyenne Bottoms, about wildlife and about this area,” Wolf said, calling the education programs top-notch. The center performs nearly 700 programs to more than 14,000 patrons every year and serves as a visitors center for people coming to Cheyenne Bottoms from all over the United States on a daily basis.
“We’re basically a one-stop shop for birdwatchers, photographers, hunters, tourists, nature enthusiasts of all kinds,” Wolf said. “We get about 8,000 drop-in visitors every year.”
Original exhibits installed when the center opened were possible thanks to donations from the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, and the center is happy to retain the Koch Wetlands Exhibit name, Wolf said. Representatives from the foundation were at the ribbon cutting.
Two years ago, the Dorothy M. Morrison Foundation approached the center with an offer to fund the remodel. Through the foundation’s generosity, the center was able to revamp the exhibits in this space. Over the last couple of weeks, they removed six static, text-based exhibits, replacing them with nine interactive exhibits with at least 15 different interactive components.
“We’ve used the space more efficiently and we’ll be much better at getting our point across about Cheyenne Bottoms and the communities that are here,” Wolf said.
Dr. Grady Dixon, interim dean of the Werth College of Science, Technology and Mathematics at FHSU, was there. The exhibits, he said, were a donor-driven project, not a state-funded project.
“It’s simple, it’s clean and it’s interactive. It’s what people need when they come in here with their kids, especially,” he said.
Wolf encouraged attendees to play with the custom exhibits. Many were drawn to the interactive floor projection system. Scurrying animals, fish and birds soar and swim across the ground, and are “caught” and the animal name appears when stepped on.
“No one else in the world has this system,” Wolf said. “This is totally new to us, new to the exhibit company, and it’s totally custom for us.”
There is also an augmented sandbox watershed simulator, a creativity center with turtle cushions, and displays featuring aquatic invertebrates, shorebird adaptations and wetland plants.
Andrea Brack Bauer, newly appointed public information officer for Great Bend USD 428 was at the ribbon cutting.
“I can not wait to bring my children here,” she said. “Already, my oldest has asked to come see the turtles in the case, and I can’t imagine how excited he will be to see those little turtles on the floor.”
All of the work was done by the exhibit company Bang! Creative, out of Carlsbad, Calif.
Since July, Wolf said, the center has conducted a study of the average amount of time visitors spend in the building. Prior to the opening of the new exhibits, people spent on average 24 minutes. Since opening the new exhibits a little over a week ago, he has found people have been spending significantly more time, and he will continue to keep track.
Catherine Opie with the Dorothy M. Morris Foundation was on hand, and offered some words.
“It’s important for the community to celebrate this center, to be educated about the wetlands and Cheyenne Bottoms in particular,” she said, noting that the area has been designated a Wetlands of International Importance on the Ramsar list. “When you drive by, you know Cheyenne Bottoms is there, but unless you have a place like this to visit and bring kids into and teach them about why this area is important and why it is so unique in the world, that thought is lost. We have a true gem here, and it is easy for the foundation to come on board for going concerns like this. It has been a true success, and kids and adults are going to love this and it’s a great thing for the community.”
Jannette Meis, event planner and communication specialist from FHSU, represented the office of the university president, Dr. Tisa Mason, who was unable to attend but sent her best. Meis thanked the Morrison Foundation for their generosity.
“This is yet another amazing example of the partnerships that have been made that benefit and engage rural communities as well as inspire future naturalists,” she said. “We are truly excited about this new interactive exhibit and the educational possibilities that it will create for the visitors of this facility and Cheyenne Bottoms.”