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Peoria Riverfront Museum Engineering Event Goes Virtual, Expands

An annual engineering event held by the Peoria Riverfront Museum is taking a new approach during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The normal “Engineering Day” special has been changed to a week-long virtual event featuring free at-home activity kits and daily Zoom workshops, beginning this Sunday. Museum science curator Renae Kerrigan said the plan emerged from a brainstorming session with past sponsors on how to hold the event without people being in the building.

“(We) came up with this idea of sort of extending the program, so instead of it just being one day, having a whole week and calling that ‘Virtual Engineering Week,’” said Kerrigan. “Groups have put together these kits, so it’s free materials for families to pick up and then they do the activities at home.

“But not only are there these activity kits they can pick up, but there are also facilitated workshops with different engineering groups with those kits. So, it’s more engaging than just the ‘make-and-take’ activity; there’s still that actual time where you can engage with engineers – but it’s just over Zoom at this time, so virtually instead of in-person.”

The program is being offered through support from Caterpillar Inc., the Society of Women Engineers and the University of Illinois Extension 4H, along with other local organizations. Kerrigan said “Engineering Day” was always a hit in past years.  

“Traditionally, it's always been a day that engineering groups and Caterpillar generously sponsor admission to the museum,” said Kerrigan. “So there's free admission, and there's all these engineering groups that come and provide activities to help young people learn a little bit about what some activities of being an engineer might be like. It’s always been a lot of fun.”

Nick Rae, coordinator of Engineering Week, said a significant Caterpillar donation enables the museum to offer 500 kits with materials to build simple homopolar motors. Caterpillar also donated classroom kits on corrosion that have been distributed by the museum to Peoria and East Peoria schools.

Kerrigan said the Virtual Engineering Week is another example of the museum's ability to continue providing educational opportunities despite the limitations of COVID-19.

“Even though our doors are physically closed, the museum hasn't really closed truly,” she said. “We are still providing opportunities for inspiration and for people to be able to learn in all of our subject areas: in science and technology, as with this engineering week, but also with art and history."

The free kits that accompany each Zoom session are limited to one per family, with advance registration required online at RiverfrontMuseum.org. The event runs through Feb. 27.

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Joe Deacon is a reporter at WCBU.