Image: Digging for fossils
Dorie Turner  /  AP
Jennifer Chandler and her 6-year-old daughter, Haley, dig for fossils in an interactive exhibit at the Tellus Northwest Georgia Science Museum on March 20, 2009, in Cartersville, Ga.
updated 4/1/2009 2:38:57 PM ET 2009-04-01T18:38:57

Nine-year-old Connor Chandler discovered a Velociraptor skeleton the other day.

Nearby, his sister, Haley, 6, mined for fossilized shark teeth.

They had already seen the Wright brothers' airplane, tromped through a mad scientist's backyard and traveled to the center of the earth. It's all in a day's work at the Tellus Northwest Georgia Science Museum in Cartersville.

"I love it," said Connor, holding a brush he used to sift through a hands-on fossil exhibit that plops children in the middle of a mock archaeological dig. "I like that you can dig and find stuff you've never seen before."

The museum, which opened in January an hour north of Atlanta, has already had 42,000 visitors and expects to more than triple that by the end of the year. More than half of the visitors have been school groups crowding in to see the seemingly sky-high dinosaur skeletons and ogle at the giant amethyst geodes.

On the path to the building's entrance, solar panels collect rays to generate electricity for the 120-seat digital planetarium. Nearby sits a star observatory that will be used for stargazing events this summer.

Inside, visitors waiting in line for tickets crowd around a giant pendulum that swings based on the earth's rotation. Children squeal with excitement when they catch a glimpse of the massive Apatosaurus skeleton just past the ticket booth towering over them in the museum's great hall.

"We're hoping to inspire more students to get excited about science, whether it's to pursue science careers or just understand science in general," said Jose Santamaria, the museum's executive director.

The museum has four galleries: minerals, fossils, transportation and "My Big Backyard," each filled with interactive displays where visitors can play with magnets, pan for gems and make an earthquake. In "My Big Backyard," guests can see what a mad scientist's backyard would look like, complete with a rain and snow simulation inside a giant tree.

The transportation gallery has the cockpit of an airplane, a replica of a damaged Apollo 1 capsule and a replica of the Wright Brothers 1903 airplane. The fossils range from the mouth of a giant shark to a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

"I'm gonna have to live here, I think," said Connor's mom, Jennifer Chandler, as she watched her children dig for fossils at the museum on a recent afternoon. "I don't think they're stopping."

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The museum started as the Weinman Mineral Museum, a 9,000-square-foot facility opened in 1983 to play off of north Georgia's mining history. It was named for William Weinman, a mine owner who paid for most of the project.

For years, thousands of school groups and families would flock to the tiny exhibit hall to see jaw-dropping quartz crystal, malachite and calcite formations. Organizers began talking in the late 1990s about expanding the museum beyond minerals to include a hands-on science experience that families could enjoy without having to travel into Atlanta.

The Weinman closed in 2007 and its exhibits were absorbed into the Tellus, which is named for the Roman goddess of the Earth.

Tellus, which sits next to Interstate 75, gets visitors from across the country, though most come from Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. For north Georgia residents, the museum is an affordable way to spend an afternoon.

Tickets are $12 for adults, $8 for children and students and $10 for seniors. The museum is free for active military.

"This is just so spectacular," said Sandy Logel from nearby Waleska. "The closest thing we have to this is in Atlanta. After living in the country for 25 years, going into the city and fighting traffic is not something I want to do."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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