Discovery Center STEAMing Forward for 30th Anniversary

In30 years the Discovery Center at Murfree Spring has come a long way. The Center originally opened in 1986 as Discovery House. It was founded by a group of young parents spearheaded by Billie Little, local pediatrician Joe Little’s wife, looking for a safe place for their children to have fun hands-on educational experiences.

Discovery House began in an old Victorian house on Maple Street, and in the first year it logged 11,000 visitors. By 1995 it became obvious to the city that it had outgrown its space, and a feasibility study was done on turning the old Murfreesboro Water and Sewer plant on Broad Street into the current Discovery Center.  Another 20 acres of wetlands was added to the Center through a private donation. The grand opening of the new Discovery Center at Murfree Spring took place on August 3, 2002.

Since 2002, Discovery Center at Murfree Springs has grown to reach over 130,000 visitors each year. Through their Kids First program, they are able to make sure that children from low-income families also have the opportunity to experience the enrichment activities available there. And recently they have added projects for special needs children and their siblings. One of these endeavors is a SibShop, a support program for the healthy brothers and sisters of children with long-term health and developmental needs. It is the only SibShop in the Middle Tennessee area.

In the last several years, Discovery Center has begun reaching out to schools and families beyond Rutherford County through programs like their STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) bus. According to Tara MacDougall, President and CEO of Discovery Center, last year the bus visited 20 schools in Rutherford, Cannon, and Bedford Counties. In 2015, the bus made a trip to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.

For their 30th Anniversary, MacDougall notes, there will be even more community outreach. “We will offer lots of things based on the number 30 this year. For example, in January we offered 30 free memberships to qualifying families. And in February we offered Wine in the Wetlands (March 3) tickets for $30. All during the month of March we will offer a 30% discount on facility rental, on March 3 we will have birthday cake, and on Thursday, March 30, we will sponsor an Easter Egg hunt with 30 hidden eggs containing special prizes.”

March is filled with special events because the original Discovery House opened in March, but there are a lot more “30” offers throughout the year. Check the Discovery Center website at to learn more about these offers -- like the 30 free solar glasses being given out in July so kids can safely watch the full solar eclipse that will be taking place on August 21. They will also host an Eclipse Watch Party.

Taking to heart their new mission statement, created as part of an updated three-year strategic plan, Discovery Center is making sure that they truly “engage curious minds to fuel the future.” Between their board, advisory committee, youth advisory board, special needs advisory committee, and business partners, the ideas for youth engagement are constantly expanding. As a matter of fact, the youth advisory board, made up of local middle and high school students, helped come up with the idea of bringing in the Trivial Pursuit 50-States Adventure exhibit.

“Based on the popular board game,” said MacDougall, “the exhibit will take visitors during the months of May through September on a trip across the United States with hands-on geography, history, and cultural activities tied to all 50 states.”

The biggest enterprise that the children’s museum will be organizing during their birthday year, however, is a statewide Tennessee STEAM Festival, which will begin October 12 and last for 10 days. According to the Discovery Center’s annual report (available on their website), STEM Festivals have been growing over the past several years across the country, from the Bay Area Science Festival in San Francisco to the US Science and Engineering Festival in Washington DC.

“While most of these festivals are STEM-related,” said MacDougall, “we added art to make STEAM, because if we do not introduce children to art and innovation, then they will not have the creative thinking skills that are needed in the 21st century.”

Discovery Center had originally planned for the festival to only reach Rutherford County the first year, followed the next year by expansion into Middle Tennessee, and then statewide in Tennessee the third year, but the idea caught on and it has gone statewide the first year. The festival is being endorsed by Tennessee Commissioner of Tourism Development Kevin Triplett, and it is a member (through Discovery Center) of the National Festival Alliance.  

A special partnership brochure has been created about the STEAM Festival. The brochure explains the vision of the event. It will not only take place at the Discovery Center, but is meant to provide businesses, educational entities, and organizations with opportunities to reach out to the community through hands-on activities that show how STEAM is used in careers at their businesses or organizations. For example, Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin will offer a physics of the fastball workshop, and Jim and Nick’s restaurants across the state willprovide sessions on the chemistry of barbecue. More information about the event is available at

Make sure to watch the Discovery Center website throughout the year for exciting news about new programs they are developing this year to reach even more families with STEAM learning activities. They are currently exploring the creation of a “Geek-out Space” where teens can explore careers, and an accredited daycare with a STEAM emphasis.

Discovery Center Secret Garden Party

Dr. Joe and Billie Little will be honored at the 2017 Secret Garden Party.

Dr. Joe and Billie Little will be honored at the 2017 Secret Garden Party.

The annual Secret Garden Party (SGP), Discovery Center’s largest fund-raiser, will take place on Saturday, June 2, at the home of Paul and Ellen Wilson. The Center recently held a reveal event at the former home of the Discovery House -- now the offices of Kious, Rodgers, Barger, Holder & Kious, PLLC -- announcing this year’s SGP honorees, Dr. Joe and Billie Little.

Mitchell Murphy of Five Senses restaurant is working on another tasty menu for SGP to delight the pallet. And committee members are searching for even more experience-related auction items, as well as insuring favorite items from the past are again available for purchase by the winning bidder.

Last year a brunch was added to the event on the Thursday before the SGP, and it will take place again this year on the grounds of the Wilson home.

Another addition to the event is that the gardens on the annual tour will be open both Friday and Saturday. Secret Garden Party proceeds insure the continuation of Discovery Center programming and operations.

More information about SGP will soon be available at