Many Roles to Play:
Making the Case for Science Centers
The Science Center as Community Powerhouse
By Walter Witschey
At recent ASTC board meetings, we have discussed "making the case" for science centerstelling the story of the true impact we make in our communities. It is so easy to overlook some of the things we do that I have compiled an inventory of functions performed by my institution, the Science Museum of Virginia (SMV), to serve as a memory jogger. SMV is a large, multisite, state-agency science center, partially funded (43 to 48 percent) by state tax dollars.
For easy reference, the list is divided into four areas: informal education, formal education, community service, and economic impact. For each I have included one or more examples of related SMV activities. In making your case, you will substitute your own examples. But as you review the list, one thing will become obvious: A science center is much, much more than meets the eye.
Every ASTC-member museum and science center is committed to furthering the public understanding of science through experiential learning. The focus may vary, from astronomy to marine biology, chemistry to computers, but above all, a science center is ...
- a physical space for hands-on exploration. Each year, more than 400,000 people visit SMV headquarters in Richmond to learn more about the science and technology that affect their lives.
- a traveling science show. SMV van and tractor-trailer programs bring hands-on science activities to schools and fairs in the deeply rural areas of Virginia. This outreach accounts for nearly one-third of our total attendance.
- a source of adult education and lifelong learning. SMV provides in-depth training and service opportunities for its adult volunteers and evening lectures for the public on topics ranging from the ethics of organ transplantation to the latest Mayan archaeological discoveries.
- a mentoring center. SMV staff guide middle and high school student volunteers and paid interns, providing training in life skills such as job interviewing, appropriate business dress and language, personal banking, and budgeting.
- a science communicator. Besides on-site programming, SMV produces large-format films, television spots, newspaper columns, radio shows, and interviews-all based on up-to-date, accurate scientific information.
Alliances with school districts, universities, and other educational organizations are a natural for science museums. To these partners, a science center is ...
- a field site for K-12 instruction. SMV serves more than 1,600 visiting school groups annually with science experiences that extend classroom instruction and correlate with Virginia's Science Standards of Learning (SOLs).
- a center for teacher education. Each year, more than a dozen SMV institutes and workshops enhance the skills of over 400 K-12 faculty.
- a partner in educational initiatives. SMV participates in statewide programs such as the Virginia Academy of Science and the Virginia Department of Education's Building a Presence for Science project. The museum provides support (and meeting space) for various educational associations and web-server support for partners like the Virginia Science Resource Network.
- a provider of quality K-12 instruction. SMV staff frequently conduct science units related to the SOLs at nearby schools and model best practices in hands-on classroom science instruction.
- a supporter of science standards. SMV publicly supports, advocates for, and supplies learning programs and curriculum materials keyed to Virginia's Science SOLs.
- a curriculum policy advisor. With their educational experience and strong science credentials, museum staff are well qualified to make recommendations on science standards to the state Board of Education.
In addition to its educational partnerships, each science center must develop and nurture a wide variety of local relationships. Within its larger community, a science center is ...
- an advocate for culture and the arts. SMV participates in multisite projts and helps to raise awareness about the capital and infrastructure needs of local arts and museum organizations.
- a center for recreation. SMV regularly hosts club meetings, food festivals, ice cream socials, dances, and other community events.
- a leader in local development. Museum staffers serve on or make presentations to city councils, county boards of supervisors, metropolitan planning organizations, and chambers of commerce, as well as local community-action groups. SMV's master planning and redevelopment programs help shape initiatives that will improve the entire community.
- a community booster. By hosting community meetings and taking a leadership role in projects such as improving tourism signage and promoting high-speed rail development, SMV has positioned itself as a spirited regional advocate.
- a source of personal growth. For SMV's many volunteers, the museum is more than a place to learn about science and perform a useful service; it's also a place to socialize and strengthen social ties.
Last, but not least, is the effect a science center can have on the bottom line of its entire community. As a significant area business, a science center is ...
- an economy driver. SMV's Richmond headquarters, with its $9 million operating budget and $3 million capital budget, has an annual economic impact of over $25 million per year in the local community.
- an economic development asset. A vibrant science center is a signal that a community values science and math and is committed to producing a science-literate workforce. SMV frequently hosts economic development meetings, keeping the business community aware of this powerful selling tool.
- a tourist attraction. In the last 20 years, science centers have become recognized tourist destinations, increasing the suite of local cultural attractions and adding to the reasons for an overnight stay. At SMV, out-of-state tourists now account for nearly 18 percent of total visitation.
- a tourism partner. A recent initiative in Richmond linked the Splendors of Egypt exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts with the Mysteries of Egypt large-screen film at SMV, a Plants of Ancient Egypt exhibition at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, and The Egyptian Influence in Richmond exhibition at the Valentine Museum. The two largest project partners broke previous attendance records.
- a community store. Besides generating funds for museum operations on a daily basis, SMV's Richmond store participates in an annual, citywide Museums Holiday Store, a program that draws thousands of shoppers to a different museum location each year.
- an urban redevelopment engine. Two of SMV's sites are in historically blighted areas. Rehabilitation of museum properties has encouraged nearby property owners to complete fix-up projects of their own and has attracted federal funding to the area.
- a preservationist. Three of the SMV sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. By caring for them (and, in two cases, creatively adapting them), SMV has saved historic properties and positioned itself as a caring member of the larger community.
- a conduit for corporate philanthropy. SMV has successfully created, tailored, and delivered programs to inner-city schools in support of corporate directed-giving initiatives.
Of course, this list is not complete. But if I'm off to a good start, I hope these ideas will make you think of your science center in fresh ways and encourage you to strengthen your unique position within the community.
Walter Witschey is the director of the Science Museum of Virginia and a vice president of ASTC.