Visitors explore the lab area of the National Museum of Natural History’s new education center, Q?rius, in Washington, D.C. (James Di Loreto/Smithsonian Institution)

The Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History entered the realm of hands-on, STEM-focused, experiential learning centers Thursday with the opening of its 10,000-square-foot, 6,000-object gallery called Q?rius.

Pronounced “curious” and geared toward teens, the roughly $15 million gallery, financed with federal funds and private donations, was seven years in the making. It has an immediate advantage in the fast-growing area of science and technology centers.

“We’re late to the game, but we’re coming in hot!” said Director Kirk Johnson. “It really opens the doors in ways we’ve never done before.”

With interactive connections to far-flung scientists and labs, and access to the museum’s 127 million-item collection, Johnson calls possibilities for the gallery infinite. “We’ve got the best back of house in the world and the world’s largest supply of experts.”

The space features seven learning areas — a “Basecamp” for sights, sounds and smells of plant, insect and early human worlds, a lab with microscopes and a 100-seat theater.

It’s a dynamic gallery “with a series of activities, and more growing out of the research of seven science departments in the museum,” said Shari Rosenstein Werb, assistant director for education outreach. “It’s meant to be flexible and changeable according to audience sensibilities.”

The “Collections Zone” features a stuffed coyote, mounted on a table, along with drawers full of stuffed stuff — rodents such as the 13-lined ground squirrel — and skulls of cat-like carnivores. Dragonflies, stick insects, praying mantids and jewel-tone crawlers engage visitors’ “Oh, that’s creepy!” reflex. There are pottery and archeological artifacts, caves and minerals, and fossils and plants.

Payton Reidy, 12, touches the hairy little legs of a nine-banded armadillo, then quickly draws back her hand.

“Yes, you can touch it,” Anna Thamasett, 12, says to her. The girls were at the center’s opening as part of a museum engagement program for students in grades six through eight.

“Like, it used to be alive and you wouldn’t want it to break,” Reidy says.

“Usually they say ‘do not touch,’ but these have green tags” that just say be careful, Thamasett says. “That makes it more interactive and more fun for us.”

It makes a difference that visitors are trusted to touch the real objects, says Rebecca Bray, chief of experience development and evaluation. “Science is often intimidating, and here we’re saying you’re allowed to participate, you’re invited to participate.”