The Orpheum is a children’s science museum located in Downtown Champaign. Their mission is to inspire, engage, and educate diverse children of all ages through the exploration of sciences and arts. CCP spoke with Education Coordinator Alex Dour.
Can you tell us a bit about the history of the Orpheum’s building and how it came to be a museum?
The building was originally constructed as a Vaudeville Theatre in 1904 (it’s 116 years old!) and then became a movie theatre before ending its run in 1986. A lot of people tell me that the last movie they saw here was Jaws! After the theatre closed, the building sat in disuse and was going to be demolished, so a children’s museum was the solution to save the building!
The museum brings the joy of science to youth. What originally sparked your interest in science as a child?
My interest in science probably starts from watching science fiction growing up; we were a big Star Trek and Star Wars family. I loved everything related to space because of it, and that’s why I chose to come to U of I to study astronomy.
How did you get involved with the Orpheum?
After completing my degree, I started looking around for opportunities where I could use my science background but also teach and inspire the next generation of scientists, and that’s how I got involved here. I started out as a Museum Associate, which is one of our front desk staff members, and I would volunteer extra time to help our former Education Coordinator. When she decided to move on, I approached and said, “Hey, I’m really interested in this and have already been helping. If you train me for awhile, could I take over afterwards?” Everybody was on board with that, so that’s how I got to where I am today!
What does a typical day look like for you as Education Coordinator?
A typical day in the beginning of the year usually involves leading a field trip from a local school for an hour or two and spending the rest of my time prepping for our spring programs. When spring break and summer come around, it switches to leading and supervising those camps and clubs all day. I don’t think this job would be as fun as it is without engaging and interacting with the kids after planning the lessons and camps.
Are there any community partnerships you’re particularly proud of?
We partnered with the NISE Network, which exists to help educators around the country. I got involved because they started a program on Earth and Space, and that’s my background. One of the requirements is to host an event with their education materials. We had our own astronomy day and partnered with community organizations like the Astronomical Society, Parkland College, and U of I’s Astronomy department, which brought everyone together and connected people with all the great resources in our city.
You’ve come up with a lot of successful events that each students about different STEM topics. Can you share one of your favorites?
My very first event was an Astronaut Camp, where students learned about the moon specifically. After they learned about the moon and what they see on the moon, they got to make their own space suits and carried a cardboard rocket to launch all the way to “the moon” in the theatre portion of the building. They walked on the moon’s surface and picked up rocks using tools since a space suit doesn’t give you much mobility in your fingers!
Why is it important for kids to have a place like the Orpheum to explore science?
The “not-school” setting gives kids an opportunity to learn in a place where they aren’t stressed out about performing on a test. They’re learning with their own motivation, and usually come because they’re interested in the event theme, giving them an opportunity to dig into the topic without any pressure.
Finally, what is your favorite part about working at the Orpheum and in Downtown Champaign?
I like that our location allows us to be accessible to more people. We’re blocks away from the Illinois Terminal, which means we have an easier access point to diverse groups of people. I’ve met museum visitors ranging from multi-generational Central Illinois families, visiting scholars from U of I, and immigrants to the USA, which wouldn’t be possible if we were in a more rural area. The diverse groups of people we cater to makes working here special!
By Melinda Sevilla, Contributing Writer