Occie Ellis tapped a computer pad a few times, then turned to watch his Lego robot zip along, stop, turn and crash.
It was time to assess what went wrong, and Cameron Nelson, founder and adult coordinator of HF Robotics club, stepped in to offer the youngster advice about how to tweak the robot’s programming.
The next run went better.
Ellis was at the robotics club practice Saturday, Nov. 14, with his mother, Nadia Reed. The session was the club’s first meeting in the future home of the Homewood Community Science Center at 18022 Dixie Highway.
Planners envision the science center to be akin to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry on a small scale. It will have interactive exhibits and hands-on activities similar to what’s available at MSI.
The purpose of the center is to boost the local economy by drawing more visitors to Homewood, complementing other projects in the downtown area, especially the Martin Avenue streetscape and La Banque boutique hotel at Ridge Road and Martin Avenue, according to village officials.
The center is also intended to be a source of education and entertainment for residents, and the planning process has involved school, library and park officials in order to ensure the community’s needs are integral to the center’s development.
Developing the science center will take some time, but Rachael Jones, coordinator of the project for the village, said there’s no reason to wait for the center to be fully developed before the community starts using it as a resource.
“We don’t like vacant storefronts, so let’s start utilizing the space,” she said. “We want this to be an active space.”
HF Robotics is one of the first groups to take her up on that offer. The holiday yard card workshop, co-sponsored by the village and the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District, is also located in the science center building.
Jones said she has talked to several other community groups that are interested in meeting at the center, and she expects there could be several tinkering events at the center this winter.
“People want a place to explore and connect, to be entertained and edified,” she said.
The village has sponsored a number of tinkering opportunities already, starting in April with a community meeting designed to introduce the science center idea and get feedback from residents. Each table at that event was stocked with components to build a simple robot — a cup, markers, a small motor, pipe cleaners and more. Participants added the last ingredient — imagination — to the mix.
At this year’s village festivals, tinkering booths were set up, giving people a chance to play and explore the kinds of hands-on activities that could be showcased at the science center.
As use of the building begins, planning for the science center will continue.
The village purchased the former Ryan Funeral Home early in 2015 with money from the Central Business District tax increment financing district, which expired at the end of 2014.
The next step is to form a nonprofit corporation to oversee the project and pursue funding opportunities. Village officials have appointed a board of directors and will announce the names at the Board of Trustees meeting tonight.
According to the conceptual plan published at the end of the project’s first phase, the cost will be between $3.6 million and $6.4 million, not counting building renovations and possible expansion.
Formation of a 501(c)3 corporation is a key step in the fundraising project, Jones said. Having an operating science center, even on a limited scale, will give prospective donors a better sense of the project’s purpose and future.
This story was first published in the Chronicle’s first print edition Dec. 1.