Huge Catawba Science Center is a Fun Day Trip in Hickory, NC

Posted on |

The Catawba Science Center in Hickory, NC has so much to explore! See animals, build, learn about physics, space, gardens and more! We checked it out and have all the information you need to enjoy a fun day here as a day trip from Greenville, SC, or Charlotte, NC, or anywhere in between!

Catawba Science Center

Ever since I got my Roper Mountain Science Center membership, I’ve started planning day trips and homeschool field trips according to where my family can get in for free or half-price using the reciprocal membership benefits. The Catawba Science Center in Hickory, NC was on the list so that’s where we went. 

About the Catawba Science Center

The Catawba Science Center is a huge, 35,000 square feet science center with two buildings, one that houses the marine and space science exhibits and the other houses the majority of the energy, geology, anatomy, and physical science exhibits, as well as the traveling exhibit in rtle Hall.

They have a planetarium also (we didn’t go to a show there when we visited) plus homeschool classes, summer camps, field trips, science programs, scout camps, and even a technology club. My kids are 11 and 7 and we saw kids of all ages there enjoying the exhibits. 

Exhibits at the Catawba Science Center

Hands-On Construction 

Behind the front desk is a huge, open room that has all sorts of hands-on exhibits. When we went, they had building blocks and pool noodles where kids (and, ahem, adults) could let their imaginations run wild and build whatever they wanted. In the same room were a couple of tables where kids (and, ahem, adults) could construct little purses, rings, and whatever else they wanted out of duct tape. 

Next to the duct tape were more tables that held small little wheels, blocks, and connector hickory sticks (they have these same things at the Roper Mountain Science Center) where guests can build small cars, buildings, or invent their own construction projects. 

Gross Labs

Moving on from the construction room and down the opposite hall is a fun exhibit called the Gross Labs. Kids of all ages will get a kick out of these exhibits that use kid-friendly language to demonstrate the actual work of scientists. 

For example, the “Poop Analyzer” exhibit actually demonstrates what a gastroenterologist would do for his or her work. There’s also a Snot Surveyor, which demonstrates the job of an allergist. I don’t remember what the Fart Scientist does but it was an interesting display. 

Energy Avenue

This was a favorite exhibit since you had the chance to launch rockets indoors. They also had a pulley chair system where kids sat in a chair and used ropes to pull themselves up (The Children’s Museum of the Upstate in Greenville also has this particular exhibit). There are also all kinds of hands-on energy exhibits in this hall for kids to learn about conduction and static electricity. 


This is a room dedicated to physics but in a kid-friendly way. Kids can race balls down a track, build superhighways on the wall and see how fast the balls can go down them. 

This room is all hands-on and includes activities to demonstrate force, friction, and kinetic and potential energy. 

Naturalist Center

This exhibit has an extensive collection of fossils, arachnids, shells, and animal hides. They even have a huge python skin to touch and feel. 

Inside this same exhibit are dozens of rocks, gems, and minerals. This was super cool since my kids and I are currently studying Geology so it was neat to see all the neat gems and minerals that have been pictured in our books. 

Little Kids Treehouse

My kids were too old for this exhibit but it looked so fun! They have an area for kids under 5 years old to play in a little treehouse, climb through tunnels, and explore the garden and hide and seek panels. 

Marine Science and Aquarium at the NEW Land to Sea exhibits

Next to the main building is the marine lab and astronomy center. The astronomy center is currently under renovation, but the Land to Sea galleries are gorgeous and definitely worth stopping by.

The land area of the exhibit has a herpetology lab with lots of different lizards, as well as several beautiful tortoise habitats, an alligator and an iguana.

The aquarium has both fresh and saltwater fish plus an 8,000 gallon shark and stingray exhibit with a touch tank. We got to see the sharks and rays fed shrimp, and the helpful staff member who was feeding them shared some interesting facts and answered guests’ questions.

You’ll also see a gorgeous turtle habitat and a freshwater ray. These rooms were beautiful, peaceful, and staffed with a museum employee who had lots of information to share.

We spent a lot of time in the Land to Sea gallery and I think it was one of our favorite spots!

Checking out the Puffer fish

The Planetarium and Outdoor Courtyard

These were the two things we didn’t do so I can’t say exactly what they were like. It was raining so we didn’t go to the outdoor courtyard play area but it looked really fun and had a climbing wall!

The planetarium has a 30-foot dome and your admission ticket includes a show there.

Traveling Exhibit: Thomas the Train

Carpenter Hall houses the traveling exhibits at the science center. They rotate every few months so that the museum always has something new to explore.

The current traveling exhibit, now through January 14th, 2024, is all about Thomas the Train. Kids will enter the world of Sodor and get a chance to play with some of their favorite train characters.

Island of Sodor, Thomas the Train at Catawba Science Center

Climb Aboard Thomas

The first thing kids will be drawn to in the room is likely the giant Thomas the Train. The bright blue paint and friendly face invite kids to climb aboard and take turns as the engineer. Buttons and knobs can be turned and levers pulled to make Thomas whistle.

Ride the Rails

Beside Thomas is an arrangement of cutaway train cars. Kids can pretend to ride the rails with a magazine, or load cargo, suitcases, and more.

Ride the Train

For the Littlest Train Lovers

Toddlers and little train lovers will enjoy the special area set aside for them with larger toy trains and tracks.

Giant Train Table

In the back corner of the room, do not miss the giant train table. Kids can run trains over the wooden tracks from outside the table or duck under and play from the table’s center.

At the train table

Sodor Steamworks

Percy is in the shop at Sodor Steamworks and he needs a little help from the kids to get him back on the rails. Kids can put Percy’s wheels on and off and perform a few other maintenance items. Or, on the other side of Percy, turn the wheel and load the coal on the conveyor belt to get Percy ready for his next journey.

Loading coal

Ticket Stand and Train Station

Kids can run the ticket stand and send passengers back to the train station waiting room. Not sure what time your train leaves? The big clocks should help you out.

Visiting the Catawba Science Center

The science center is open Wednesday – Saturday from 10 am – 4 pm and Sunday 1 pm – 4 pm. Tickets are $14/adults and $12/ages 3 and up. If you have a Roper Mountain Science Center membership, admission is free. 

We spent about two hours there but you could certainly stay longer if you went to a planetarium show or took your time going through all the exhibits. 

Day Trip

The science center is about two hours from Greenville, an hour and a half from Charlotte, NC, an hour from the Biltmore, and an hour to Kings Mountain State Park. We went to the Schiele Museum of Natural History after visiting the science center. It was only about 40 minutes away and was a great add-on for the day trip. 

Catawba Science Center
243 Third Avenue NE, Hickory, NC

About the Author
How does Kidding Around® bring readers high-quality and up-to-date content month after month and season after season? We have a dedicated team of writers and editors who regularly update our fabulous content to keep it current and relevant for our readers. This team combs lists of events, heads out into the community to experience new Upstate offerings, and communicates with local businesses. Many of our updated articles and event lists, like this one, reflect the contributions and hard work of multiple Kidding Around® team members.

Sign up for our email newsletter.

Comments are closed.