The Kiewit Luminarium spans 82,000 square feet at the Lewis & Clark Landing on Omaha’s riverfront (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

OMAHA — Three years in the making, Nebraska’s newest tourist magnet is set to open Saturday: 82,000 square feet of interactive science museum on the edge of Omaha’s riverfront.

The Kiewit Luminarium, whose roughly $100 million price tag was privately funded, is key to redefining a downtown landscape, along with the tri-park revamp and planned $600 million Mutual of Omaha skyscraper.

Space-filling block exhibit at the Kiewit Luminarium. Outside, work continues at the Heartland of America Park at the RiverFront. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

It’s viewed as a boost to building a workforce in a labor-starved state, with more than 120 exhibits designed to inspire lifelong interest and careers in science, technology and engineering.

But among the Luminarium’s highest values, said CEO Silva Raker, is providing a space where people of all backgrounds connect, open their minds to different ways of learning and break down barriers.

“There aren’t that many places where people can intersect with folks who already aren’t in their circle,” Raker told the Nebraska Examiner during a sneak peek event for news media on Tuesday.

Raker noted that almost all the Luminarium exhibits are designed for social interaction and an exchange of thoughts.

People are encouraged to write personal stories to spark conversation at the Luminarium’s pothole exhibit. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Take the “pothole” station (many displays reflect Omaha-centric issues and feature local personalities).

Paper, pencils and a question encourage visitors to describe thoughts and post them on a wall for all to see. “What would an Omaha without potholes be like?” 

To that, one respondent wrote: “We will never know.” Another said, “They make this the holiest city in the country.”

Also in the exhibit, a day-in-the-life video of a real-life city pothole-filler explains the science behind the craters and his role in fixing up to 20,000 in a month.

Raker said adult nights will be held at the Luminarium on certain topics, maybe even on potholes, and people can share further ideas.

Silva Raker, inaugural CEO of the Kiewit Luminarium (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

“You will never look at a pothole again the same,” she said. “It’s about finding the science and the technology in the everyday, and it’s also finding the humanity in it.”

Inside the Luminarium’s steely exterior is a cafe, a gift shop and sections devoted to areas such as math and geometry, natural phenomena and physical science, engineering and the built environment.

To be sure, it’s a hands-on learning environment.

Take the geometry playground, where one can enhance the “brain’s spatial superpowers” by stacking, packing and fitting together objects in just the right position.

A compost station invites visitors to “feel the warmth.”

A turn of a knob at another display sends sound waves splashing through water in a tube.

Elijah Mitchell, a Luminarium worker, checks out one of the science exhibits. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

On Tuesday, Elijah Mitchell — who is among the 60 students on the 100-person Luminarium staff — was laughing with his co-workers as each tested how quietly they could walk through a bed of rocks in one of the exhibits.

Mitchell, 21, said he wasn’t exposed much to museums while growing up. He sought the part-time Luminarium job, while studying business at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, in part to pass on some life lessons to young visitors.

“I’d like to help break that barrier for kids who don’t like math or science or think they don’t understand it — this is hands-on learning, and it can be fun.”

 (Courtesy of Kiewit Luminarium)

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