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Lunch with Mimi: Michele Crowl of Discovery Space discusses upcoming move

by on August 01, 2017 11:56 AM

Growing up in Hollidaysburg, Michele Crowl was a curious child who asked a lot of questions and had a fascination about how things worked. While stargazing on the beach with her grandmother, she was baffled by how the moon’s gravitational force affects ocean tides on Earth. It’s no wonder she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from Penn State in 2004, a master’s degree in informal science learning in 2010 from Oregon State University, and a PhD in science education from Penn State in 2016.

Crowl was the director of education at Discovery Space since its opening in 2011 and is now the executive director. Prior to her work with Discovery Space, she spent four years running planetarium shows and hands-on programs at a science museum in Florida.

Discovery Space is a nonprofit interactive children’s science museum providing exhibits and hands-on programs designed to provide valuable informal education, especially in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), in a fun learning environment.

In September, Discovery Space is moving from 112 West Foster Avenue in downtown State College to a larger property at 1224 North Atherton Street. Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Crowl at Zola Kitchen & Wine Bar to discuss the expansion of Discovery Space and what new exhibits and programs will be offered to stir the curiosity of children in our area.

Mimi: Tell our readers how you got into this business of science museums.

Michele: It was a surprise to me. I did my bachelor’s degree at Penn State in astrophysics and everyone else was talking about going to grad school right after they graduated. At the time, I didn’t even know why someone would get a master’s or a PhD. In the program through the astronomy department, there are a lot of outreach opportunities — summer camps, Astrofest during Arts Fest — and so I got involved in a lot of those and realized I could use astronomy to teach in interesting ways. I also found museums. I moved to Florida and I worked in a planetarium, doing outreach programs with schools. I fell in love with the world of museums and the ways they enhance what kids are learning in school.

Mimi: Well, you found something that helps parents enhance the way that their children grow up.

Michele: Yeah and it teaches parents sometimes too.

Mimi: In a little college town, where one would suspect this couldn’t happen because there wouldn’t be enough interest, how did you and your previous cohort do that?

Michele: I moved back here to work on my PhD and was so happy to hear about efforts to get a science museum open. And so, I met Marty Starling as soon as I could. She was leading those efforts. It was an interesting mix of community members who were passionate about having educational opportunities for children during the day, in the summer, and in the evenings. It was truly a community effort to bring all the pieces together.

Mimi: Give me some more of the early names.

Michele: Lloyd Huck, Art Heim, Margaret Roof, Linda Gall, Mark McLaughlin, Jawaid Haider, Donna Conway, Rick Grazzini, Carla Zembal-Saul, and many of our current board members, for starters. I’m sure I’m missing people and I apologize for that. There were so many.

Mimi: Linda Gall is always there.

Michele: Yes, we are so fortunate to have her support. Mimi: Her middle name is service. Michele: Yes. She’s amazing. She even came to the AAUW book sale with us this year. AAUW supports us so every year on the Monday morning of the sale, we get a group of people together. We invite all the staff and volunteers. We show up in our blue Discovery Space shirts and buy books. I invited Linda Gall to come along and she did. She found some books for her grandkids and some for the museum. It was awesome.

Mimi: Well, that’s wonderful to recycle books. So, do you maintain a library at the museum?

Michele: Yeah, we have books by theme at specific exhibits. So, at the weather exhibit we have a lot of books on weather for different ages of kids. And then in the nest, for 6 months to 2-year-olds, we have a lot of board books.

Mimi: Now you’re moving to this new space. Care to tell us about that?

Michele: Absolutely. This new space provides us so much opportunity. We can really take what we’re doing to the next level. Some of our exhibits will be the same, but we’ll have a set of new exhibits in there as well. We’ll have a bigger space for young children, the 2 and under crowd. We’ll have two classrooms instead of one. We’ve been listening to a lot of what visitors have been saying. What they like and what they want more of, including parking; we’ll have that too.

Mimi: Well, that makes sense. What is the most popular thing in the existing space and how will it change in the new space?

Michele: That’s a really hard question to answer because we have some visitors who come every single week. And we see, for example, we’ve got a group of maybe 3- to 6-year-olds that every time they walk in the building they go to the same set of exhibits. 

Mimi: Which exhibits would that be?

Michele: There’s a roller-coaster exhibit where you can put the pieces together to build a loop or a turn and then you roll a ball bearing down. It’s hard to say which one is the most popular. The maker space has been really popular because it gives kids a way to craft. They’re given a challenge to design something that floats or spins, and then they’re given recycled materials. Kids walk in, they look at the challenge and the materials, and start building. They don’t hesitate.

Mimi: Who’s the best builder?

Michele: I’d say it starts around 7 years old. They have a grasp on how materials work and what it takes to stick them together and stand them up.

Mimi: Tell me the kinds of new exhibits that will be in the new place.

Michele: We will have a section of the museum that’ll really focus on art and design. That’ll include the maker space, where kids get a chance to innovate and invent. We’ll have an area that’ll let kids explore art and then take what they learn there into the maker space and create art of their own. We’ll have an invention bench that will have tasks that kids can try. And then we’ll have weather exhibits as another central part of the museum.

Mimi: AccuWeather has been an important piece from the beginning.

Michele: They’ve been a partner since the beginning for sure. They will be represented in the space with the exhibits they’ve given to us. Music is another area that’ll be represented well. We’re designing that space now. We have some musical exhibits already. We have a heartbeat drum, for example. You put your hands on the sensor and as soon as it senses your heartbeat, the drum beats at the same rate so kids can do jumping jacks and see that it goes faster. We have an air harp. You can’t see the strings because they’re just made up of light. But, if you put your hands over the sensor you can play the harp.

Mimi: Who do you get to advise you on something like that? I would have absolutely not known where to begin.

Michele: We are lucky because we have a lot of community volunteers and partnerships at Penn State that we can leverage expertise. And then there is a whole field of museums willing to help other museums with ideas and new ways of doing things.

Mimi: To me, you are a person who will make things happen.

Michele: I cannot tell you how much I love watching kids walk in and — they don’t articulate in the same way adults would — but they’re learning from every single thing they do. They walk in and spend about 1 second at 15 exhibits in a row, and then they slow down. So, they look chaotic at first but that’s part of their learning experience.

Mimi: Do they ask a lot of questions?

Michele: They do. But they don’t ask how to do it, they have already figured out in their head how they want to do it.

Mimi: OK, but what are the kinds of questions they ask?

Michele: Sometimes, the best part is watching them ask their parents, maybe they’re building something and giving their parent orders on how to do it and what to try next, which is always exciting. Sometimes, they ask questions that we don’t expect. We have a computer simulation exhibit where you can jump on a planet. You choose the planet you want to jump on. Jupiter, for example, has a lot of mass and therefore a stronger gravity than Earth. So, even if you jump really high, you don’t go very high. The computer screen shows you jumped really low and really fast. And then shows you what you would’ve jumped over on this planet, like a lady bug, for example. Whereas, Pluto, you can jump over a fire truck.

Mimi: (laughter) So this stirs their curiosity.

Michele: Yeah, to show them different ways of understanding their world.

Mimi: Are there as many girls as boys who come into the Discovery Space?

Michele: Yes, and you know, at times we find that parents are a barrier. We see it often where the parents aren’t sure if their kids will enjoy or can do the science or the engineering. Even in the elementary grades. We offer them a full refund if they try it and don’t like it, but we’ve never had to give a refund. The kids fit right in. Seven-year-olds can be engineers, they can do engineering challenges. 

Mimi: Well, also sparking this move was the fact that you were so hidden.

Michele: Yeah. We do love the borough of State College, they have been really kind to us. When we started the search, we looked in the borough first; it just became impossible to find a space that would fit us. So, we will be in Ferguson Township and opening in September. The bigger space will allow us to accommodate larger groups like our early-childhood programs, for 5-year-olds and under on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday mornings. We have had 40 kids and parents squished into a room. They say they don’t mind because they want to be in there doing rhythm activities, making sounds, and keeping a beat with each other.

Mimi: So, most of your people are volunteers?

Michele: We have three full-time and about 10 part-time staff. Some work five hours a week, some work 30. We have a couple dozen volunteers that help regularly with the programs and the exhibit floor. When we have field trips, they help the kids. Schools visit us from as far as two hours away. It’s been really fun to begin to build relationships with the outlying school districts. They’ll visit, explore the museum for about two hours, have lunch in the park right beside us, and then head back. 

Mimi: Well, you won’t have lunch in that park in your new location.

Michele: No. We’re sad for that. There’s a tiny bit of green space right behind the museum. We think with some landscaping, we could turn it into a space with picnic tables. We also have two classrooms instead of one so they could potentially use one of the classrooms for lunch.

Mimi: What do you want this place to be in the next five years?

Michele: So many things. Teachers have a really hard job, especially at the elementary level. Science can sometimes get pushed out, almost completely, which means kids have no access to science unless they’re getting it from somewhere else. There are some really good places and people doing work in the community related to science and engineering, and we can be an additional constant and I’m really excited about that. I think we’re building that now. I think about this analogy often: you walk with your best friend into a restaurant and the server comes over and says, “what would you like?” But you haven’t even seen a menu. That’s the challenge kids face now, especially at the high school level deciding to go to college or not, and what to study. On their way there, as they’re supposed to be exploring, they don’t know what their options are. So, how can you build stronger communities, businesses, and better research if you don’t have people who even know that it’s an option? I see us being that menu for a lot of children and families. And we can explain the contents of that menu. We don’t think every student has to be a scientist or engineer, but we want every kid to feel like it’s an option if they’re interested.

Mimi: Or have some understanding of it.

Michele: Part of science is about using data to make claims. If you can’t do that, there’s no way you could say anything about climate change or overpopulation or whatever. So, science can help kids be critical thinkers and learn to use data and to think about making explanations.

Mimi: I’m not sure if this interview will reflect the energy and excitement of the leader of the Discovery Space. Your energy, attitude, and spirit are captivating and I want to thank you for sharing it with me and our readers.

Michele: This is certainly exciting and I’m happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk about it. Thanks! 

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