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Science museums chart futures

Science museums chart futures

Two area science museums catering to younger audiences are expanding their offerings, and their admi
Science museums chart futures
Families enter the Lally Digital Dome & Planetarium at the Children’s Museum of Science and Technology in Troy on Friday, March 1, 2013.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson

Two area science museums catering to younger audiences are expanding their offerings, and their administrators say they are confident there’s enough interest for both to remain viable.

Last month, the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) announced a partnership with the Children’s Museum of Science and Technology, which has its home in the Rensselaer Technology Park south of Troy. The NanoCollege will invest $5 million during the next five years on new exhibits and programming.

This comes about six months after the Schenectady Museum became the Museum of Innovation and Science, or miSci, and focused on becoming a regional science center. The museum opened a butterfly house recently and plans new exhibits, including a NASA mission simulator at its campus on Nott Terrace Heights in Schenectady.

A tale of two science museums

• miSci (formerly Schenectady Museum)

Year founded: 1934

Mission statement: to “celebrate and explore

science and technology, past, present and future”

Square footage: 45,000 square feet

Annual visitors: About 40,000

Employees: About 30 full- and part-time; 100 volunteers

Annual budget: $1.5 million

• Children’s Museum of Science and Technology (CMOST)

Year founded: 1954

Mission statement: to “instill a sense of wonder and

discovery in young minds, inspiring a lifelong

exploration of science and technology”

Square footage: 12,000

Annual visitors: 61,000

Employees: Five full time, nine part time

Annual budget: $600,000

Officials from both museums say they don’t think the change at CMOST will affect miSci, and note both museums work to raise interest in science. Each has a planetarium, and each caters to school groups.

Former Price Chopper CEO Neil Golub, who has been instrumental in the transformation of the Schenectady Museum into miSci as a benefactor, said he was not surprised about the merger as CNSE had proposed a similar concept to the Schenectady Museum about a year ago and sent a proposed memo of understanding. The college’s plan was to take over miSci, while keeping some staff and a couple of existing board members.

“It read like a hostile takeover,” he said.

Golub said the board decided to pass on giving up control of the museum, which has been a Schenectady institution since 1934. He said miSci will chart its own course with fresh exhibits.

Financial issues had made that difficult in recent years as the museum tapped its reserve funds to plug budget shortfalls. Earl Redding, chairman of the board of trustees, said the recession caused schools to cut back on field trips, which hurt business. Also, the museum spent money exploring other locations before they decided to remain at their current site.

Funding from the Golub family and National Grid helped the museum pay for a five-year partnership with the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco to receive rotating exhibits. The amount of the donations hasn’t been disclosed.

Golub said the museum will make a formal announcement in a few weeks that IBM is bringing its “Think” exhibit to miSci. The interactive exhibit traces the impact of technology throughout the past century and its effect on human progress. There are versions of the exhibit on display at Lincoln Center in New York City and Epcot Center at Disney World. The exhibit’s arrival at miSci came about through Golub’s friendship with John Kelly, senior vice president of research and development for IBM.

Museum officials are working to finish the space where its Challenger space simulator exhibit will go. Redding said they are looking to have it up and running sometime next year.

Golub said he is not worried about competition from CMOST and believes both museums have a place.

“The real world of science is so big; there is certainly enough room to do a lot of things,” he said.

Paul Fahey, chairman of the CNSE board of trustees, said the same. “I think a lot of us are delivering similar missions in different ways.”

Both museums’ mission statements are similar: The mission of miSci is “to celebrate and explore science and technology, past, present and future.”

The Children’s Museum of Science and Technology says it aims “to instill a sense of wonder and discovery in young minds, inspiring a lifelong exploration of science and technology.”

The bottom of CMOST’s news releases says it is “the only science center in New York’s Tech Valley designed specifically for kids and parents to ‘explore, discover and imagine’ the world of science together.”

The two museums share many similarities. Both have in-house planetariums and displays about nanotechnology and the weather.

CMOST has the Seeing exhibit, on loan from miSci, which is about how the brain makes sense of visual images and contains a lot of optical illusions.

CMOST has more exhibits on the living environment, including a 75-foot long Hudson River habitat exhibit and an exhibit about exotic animal species with reptiles, lizards, snakes, owls and cockroaches. It also has an exhibit where children can learn about the weather, including the green screen used by television meteorologists and an exhibit on wind and solar energy.

At miSci, there are some exhibits for younger children, including challenges such as trying to pick up the most number of chopsticks or landing a clothespin in a cup after dropping it from a certain height. There is also a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education teacher workshop.

William “Mac” Sudduth, who arrived at miSci as executive director in November, said he doesn’t see the two museums as competing. “Nonprofits need to cooperate and collaborate together to achieve their mission,” he said.

The target audience is broad, according to Sudduth. “STEM education is so important in our society. We’re not going to make everybody into scientists or engineers. But any informed citizen needs to understand the science of technology.”

Dean Fuleihan, executive vice president for strategic partnerships at CSNE, agreed that the two museums don’t threaten each other. “The more people that are out there doing this and the more partnerships in STEM education the better,” he said.

The timing was right for a partnership with the Children’s Museum of Science and Technology, Fuleihan said. The two organizations already had been collaborating on summer NanoCamp programs and presentations at events such as National NanoDays and CNSE’s Community Day during its annual celebration of NANOvember.

The partnership was further cemented last October when the museum added a nanotechnology exhibit that presents hands-on activities such as building a giant model of a carbon nanotube. The exhibit was created by the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network, a national coalition of science educators, with support from the National Science Foundation. MiSci also has a nanotechnology exhibit.

Fuleihan said the museum’s mission lines up with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s goals of preparing children for future jobs in technology.

Deborah Onslow, chief executive officer of the Children’s Museum of Science and Technology, said CMOST reached an audience of more than 80,000 last year, including visitors to the museum and visits by museum staff to local schools.

Onslow said that when she took the job last summer, she was a little concerned about the museum’s limited resources. CNSE’s investment of $5 million fixes that problem, according to Onslow. “It’s not only money, it’s also the expertise that residents at CNSE have that we don’t have,” she said.

Now, Onslow said, the museum will have the resources to add new exhibits. CMOST has already had conversations with a faculty member at the University at Albany who wanted to put together an exhibit about quantum mechanics.

CNSE spokesman Steve Janack said the partnership will expand education and training programs for young people in the science and engineering careers, particularly in nanoscience and nanoengineering.

The existing museum staff of five full-time and nine part-time employees is being retained and included as part of CNSE’s staff. The museum will remain in its 12,000-square-foot space in the Rensselaer Technology Park. Janack said CMOST would also have a showpiece exhibit housed in the college’s new 200,000-square-foot Zero Energy Nanotechnology facility to be constructed on the college campus. That building is tentatively set to open in the fall of 2014 and would house green technology research and a Tech Valley High School, which is relocating from the Rensselaer Tech Park. College officials are in the process of reviewing design proposals, according to Janack.

Sudduth, of miSci, said he hadn’t been aware that the partnership between CMOST and the CSNE was going to happen. He has been more focused on his own museum and its new butterfly exhibit, which he said attracted about 1,000 visitors a day during the recent school vacation week. He said there are new exhibits planned on dinosaurs and about how rivers flow and how waves happen.

Sudduth has said his goals are to double the current size of the museum and add exhibits, including an outdoor exhibit, within five years.

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