For Bemidji couple, a lifelong mission: 'Get kids excited about science'

Science center exhibits include local wildlife.
Live animal exhibits at the Headwaters Science Center in Bemidji include reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals.
Dan Olson / MPR News

Laddie and Jim Elwell came to Bemidji 40 years ago to teach college science. They soon discovered the region's K-12 kids also needed them.

Visiting a local science fair, they found an event so withered in size and quality that nearly all 18 students working on a human heart circulation project had it wrong. Rather than walk away, Laddie got a grant to pay for scientists from Milwaukee to speak at schools. Then she loaded her car with a bed of nails, a giant sling shot, and other props for science demonstrations and traveled to schools in northern Minnesota.

The nail bed helped explain the physics of weight distribution; if done correctly, no one got hurt. The sling shot demonstrated other physical principles as it launched water balloons, in one case with a bit more power than intended — hitting a police car in a parking lot across the highway.

Jim and Laddie Elwell
Jim and Laddie Elwell helped create the Headwaters Science Museum 20 years ago in Bemidji .
Dan Olson / MPR News

The officer understood. The shows were a hit. "This was before the Internet, and teachers up here had no resources," Laddie recalled.

The circuit-riding science shows started from their car found a permanent home in a former J. C. Penney store in downtown Bemidji. It became Headwaters Science Center, a place where visitors can make giant soap bubbles, build with wood blocks and learn about snakes, echoes and much more. On Saturday, the center celebrates 20 years.

For Laddie, 84, and Jim, 88, the mission hasn't changed. "Get kids excited about science," Laddie said.

Laddie was bitten by the science bug as a child. Her sister came home from school and gushed about a strange substance she saw in chemistry class. "It would eat its way out of glass. And I thought, 'Wow!'"

The Elwells started their science careers at the country's hydrogen bomb-making plant near Savannah, Ga. Then they moved to Ames for doctorates at Iowa State — Laddie in parasitology, Jim in geology.

Laddie worked for several years at the Science of Museum of Minnesota and was a big fan of youth science fairs, the school-based events where kids demonstrate science projects of all sorts at local, state and even national and international competitions.

When they came to Bemidji and saw the state of kid science, the need to act was clear.

They dashed around the country to make grant deadlines and locate exhibits. Laddie says they sped past important organizing steps such as a survey of community needs, to seize what they considered a critical moment in time.

"And it was just the right time to do something and to heck with the protocol."

The center's future appears to be bright. The non-profit is in the black and visitor numbers are surging. A move to a larger building may be in the offing. Nearly 26,000 people visited or participated in an Headwaters Science Center event last year.

Laddie was the unpaid director for years and Jim the volunteer chief financial officer. There's still a legion of volunteers, but there are now seven paid staff including a new director, Susan Joy.

The magic of the place, said Joy, is that kids are learning about science and don't even know it.

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