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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Intensive Lab Experiences in Milwaukee

The following blog was written by ECHO's Executive Director Phelan Fretz. He is on a summer sabbatical from ECHO and is taking the time to explore the country. He promised to send us "nuggets of learning" from the field, and this is the second installment.


Intensive Lab Experiences in Milwaukee
Phelan R Fretz


Pursuing golden examples to inform ECHO's future is part of my sabbatical this summer. Last fall, ECHO was invited to join the Great Lakes Network, a partnership of eight similar institutions from Quebec to Duluth, Minnesota aiming to better interpret the shared waters that drain into the St. Lawrence River and in ECHO's case, Lake Champlain. Discovery World in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, stood out as an innovator in how they engage their guests. After meeting Discovery World's Education Coordinator Kristen Smith at the fall Network meeting, I put them on my short list to visit; they did not disappoint.


Upon arrival at Milwaukee's waterfront, I was heartily welcomed at the front door with a big hug from Kristen. She introduced their executive director Joel Brennan. He shared, "we opened our 120,000 sq ft, $95 million facility in 2007.  Of all the strategies we employ to engage our 300,000 annual guests, our labs have the greatest impact." "Funny you should say that", I inject, "for that is just the reason I am here today."  


All the labs are on the lower level, below the extensive, more traditional science center exhibits on the two floors above. We first
Design It Lab "Fashion Accessories"
enter the Kohl's Design-it Lab where a class of upper elementary girls are designing and building fashion accessories. "The emphasis is on the process - design it, make it, test it, and revise," Kristen said, "The goal is to go through ta real design process, from start to finish."


LEGO Lab at Discovery World
Next door, Kristen introduced me to the Thirst Lab by indicating, "With a real brewery set-up, and one of the region's only female brewers, we have built a whole new interest from women."  She continues, "the lab is also the platform for all of our culinary, forensic and kitchen chemistry classes."  Further down the hall are labs focused on broadcast journalism, silk screening, technology (including a LEGO FIRST league) and 3D art. Kristen summarized their goal and use, "During the week, all the labs are reserved for groups such as school classes, summer camps and Girl Scouts. On weekends, the labs are open to the public." And proudly she added, "The topics change monthly and never repeat! We would rather engage someone for a whole week rather for a single afternoon."

The more traditional exhibits upstairs should also be noted.  A whole section is committed to energy education, along with a massive model of the Great Lakes system including real running water and a complete overview of what it takes to clean the water you flush down the toilet.  Outside, is the three-mast tall ship, the Denis Sullivan, that does 3-hour to week-long sailing tours of Lake Michigan.

Model of the Great Lakes water system
Sailing vessel, Denis Sullivan
The strategies at Discovery World are of particular interest to ECHO, especially those employed in the labs. While Kristen would be the first to say, "The labs are resource intensive, but they provide a deeply engaging platform to educate guests in a wide variety of topics." 
KOHL's sponsored Design-It Lab

Without a changing exhibit hall like ECHO's, Discovery World uses the ever-changing labs to continue to create a reason to return. The labs have also enabled the building of strong partnerships with local companies - linking the activity of the company to innovation, technology and water quality.  For example, Kohls Department Store has funded the Design-It Lab the past few years with over $4 million - focusing on building the community's skills in continual innovation, a strategy they employ in their business.  

The journey continues and I look forward to sharing the next bit of "learning on the road".

To be continued....


Monday, July 14, 2014

Magic in Missoula

The following blog was written by ECHO's Executive Director Phelan Fretz. He is on a summer sabbatical from ECHO and using this time to explore the country. He promised to send us "nuggets of learning" from the field, and this is the first of what we hope will be several more installments. 

Magic in Missoula
by Phelan R Fretz, Ph.D.


Activity station at SpectrUM
Pursuing golden examples to inform ECHO's future is part of my sabbatical this summer. With over 350 science centers and aquariums nationwide - all eager to share - deciding on which centers to visit and learn from is the toughest challenge. I heard about the extraordinary work of SpectrUM (UM is caps for University of Montana - and a clue to their story) in Missoula, Montana through ECHO's director of education, Molly Loomis. 

Interactive watershed table at SpectrUM 




Molly recently completed a national leadership institute and met the SpectrUM director Holly Truitt. This week, Holly welcomed me to their new center in downtown Missoula, a recent move from a smaller space on campus. Upon first glance, the 4,000 sq. ft. retail location overlooking busy Front Street is like many other science centers. One corner is all about our brain with microscopes and models. Another corner features a model of their watershed with a working stream table. What looks like a restaurant bar is actually an activity station - with today's focus on fingerprints. 

There is so much to learn from and absorb at SpectrUM but two things stood out for me, the first is that the University of Montana's EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) program is recognized in every SpectrUM exhibit and the second thing is how they manage educational outreach to far flung areas of rural and expansive Montana.  


Mini-science center and lab at the University of Montana
First, about UM. In 2007, as an EPSCoR recipient, (EPSCor is a National Science Foundation program that aims to strengthen STEM education and research*), UM decided to proactively create opportunities for their faculty to "broaden the impact" of their scientific research by building a mini-science center on campus. As the founding director, Holly indicated why this is so important. "Scientists that demonstrate real strategies to reach the public in their research proposals are more competitive", she said. "It's a win-win," she continued, "by committing to support public engagement through SpectrUM, we receive financial support and the faculty are more likely to get their grant."

Holly's creativity didn't stop here, which brings me to my second point. Simultaneous to creating the mini-science center on campus, they created a platform to deliver science education not just in Missoula, but across the state. Holly shared, "our traveling program is designed to serve as a week-long science-in-resident experience, transforming the state's far-reaching schools into science centers." The day I visited, the traveling program was on its way to a Native American Pow Wow.

With the UM president sitting on SpectrUM's advisory board, along with faculty and civic leaders, the institution realizes the full support of both the community and the university - a very powerful combination. 

So why is this a golden example for ECHO to think about? Two reasons. Born in the University, SpectrUM is highly integrated into the workings of the university and thus receives both funding and access to cutting-edge research to support public outreach (it is actually a department of UM). Second, if they can figure out how to create, fund, and deliver a traveling program across rural Montana, we should consider the same in Vermont. After all, it's a 10-hour drive across Montana - the same as driving to Washington, DC from Burlington, Vermont.

*NSF provides special support to state universities to grow their faculty's competitive research skills and capacity; often in states with smaller populations such as Montana and Vermont. Mor information about NSF EPSCor program can be found here: http://www.nsf.gov/od/iia/programs/epscor/index.jsp

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Baby Spiny Softshell Turtles Released Back Into Lake Champlain By Superstar Families

The Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtles were successfully released into Lake Champlain on a cloudy and rainy day this past June. The rain cleared just in time for seven of our Superstar families to release the turtles, one-by-one, into the northern lake.

The nineteen baby softshell ready to go home!
Photo by J. Kiedaisch
State Biologist, Steve Parren, gave all the families a lesson in turtle biology, explaining how these special turtles, that over-wintered at ECHO, are twice the sized they would normally be, had they stayed in Lake Champlain over the winter. There were two species of turtles released on this day, 19 Northeastern spiny softshell turtles as well as three Northern map turtles.  Also on hand were our dedicated ECHO volunteers and animal care staff who spent untold hours caring for these neonates throughout the winter.


As part of ECHO's Head Start Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle program, these families donated to the care and upkeep of the baby turtles.  Adoptive parents/families choose the sponsorship level, either the Softshell Supporter or Softshell Superstar.  Along with a certificate verifying their adoption, the families received a plush softshell toy and monthly e-mail updates on the progress and growth of the turtles.  In addition, the Softshell Superstars received four passes to visit the turtles and an exclusive invitation to attend the release.
Two young volunteers help to release the turtles with coaching by
ECHO's Director of Animal Care Steve Smith'.

After months of corresponding with the adoptive families, it was very fulfilling to share in their joy and excitement at making a difference in the lives of these turtles. Most rewarding is the fact that the families, and especially the children, are learning about the importance of Lake stewardship and environmental caring.

I look forward to meeting the next group of stewards when ECHO welcomes another batch of baby spiny softshell turtles this fall.

Do you want to be a part of ECHO's Head Start Program? Please learn more about our turtle adoption program here. Adopting a turtle is just one way to make a positive difference. All it takes is one action to create ripples of positive change, just one drop....what is your "one drop" today?

View a photo album of our turtle release day here: http://bit.ly/turtlerelease2014.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

ECHO VOLUNTEER SPOTLIGHT

Meet Animal Care Volunteer Erica Ribeiro.  

ECHO Volunteer Erica Ribeiro transports one of ECHO's turtles during the morning feed time.

Erica joined ECHO's Animal Care Department in the fall of 2011. She has a lifelong natural connection to wildlife and wanted to be a part of ECHO and the larger mission of educating people about the importance of proper stewardship of Lake Champlain and the natural environment around it. Erica explains:

"Naturally, ECHO appealed to me because of their connection to the animals
and our community. I had heard wonderful things about the staff prior to applying,
so I thought why not give it a shot".  

While Erica thought volunteering at ECHO might be fun, she was hooked after a few hours and has been a consistent volunteer for the last two and half years.  Erica's experience and knowledge of ECHO's animal collection has grown immensely since she started, but her care and commitment towards the animals was unwavering from the start which makes her a valued volunteer.

"Having the opportunity to handle animals that are in my backyard and knowing
that I am making a difference for them is the most rewarding part of job." 

Originally from Rhode Island, Erica moved to Vermont at age eighteen. She has a lifelong passion for and interest in animals and has, since childhood, adopted an array of friends from rodents of all kinds, fish, iguanas, turtles, scorpions, to the most current members, hedgehogs. Owning hedgehogs sparked an interest in breeding them so Erica is currently working on attaining a breeder's license for hedgehogs in the state of Vermont. In addition, Erica is attending massage school and intends to pursue a career in this field following graduation in June 2014. Erica's five year old son, Tripp Danger, is also an ECHO fan, and shares his mom's passion for animals.

Erika, ECHO thanks you as well as your fellow Animal Care volunteers, for continuing to care for our animals and help them be healthy ambassadors that teach the importance of stewardship of the Lake Champlain watershed and all the world's watersheds. 

ECHO greatly appreciates your service!

Interested in joining ECHO's Volunteer Family? To learn more about ECHO's volunteer opportunities, please go to: http://www.echovermont.org/getinvolved/volunteer-intern.html

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Partnering and Crowd Sourcing Create 3D Guided Tour

ECHO is a learning organization which means we are always looking for innovative ways to present information to our guests. Most recently we've been fine-tuning and prototyping a 3D project* that will give guests a highly interactive way to engage in learning about the Lake Champlain Basin.

  Nina Ridhibhinyo leads a 3D tour of the Lake Champlain Basin. 
In April, we welcomed over 300 guests to take part in a preview of the new 3D guided tour of parts of the Lake Champlain Basin and it was a blast! Nina Ridhibhinyo, ECHO’s group programs manager, guided these eager participants through space and time as part of a 25 minute 3D presentation on the history of dam development and flooding on the Winooski River. They explored Vermont's wetlands and flood zones, delved into the historic floods of 1927 and 2011, and visited mills as well as hydroelectric and flood control dams throughout Vermont. After the presentation, visitors shared their thoughts about the prototype program by either completing a survey or by chatting with one of our project team members.

This 3D visualization tool provides a powerful way for our visitors to explore the geography of the Lake Champlain Basin as part of an immersive 3D experience. By layering aerial imagery and geographic data on top of a digital model, ECHO guests can soar over the mountains, above the streams, and through the valleys of the Basin.

We still have work to do as we incorporate visitor feedback into the program and put finishing touches on this massive project. This project and process reminds us of the importance of partnerships and creative collaborations that allow our relatively small lake aquarium and science center to bring this type of such state-of-the-art technology to our region. Just a few years ago ECHO could not have imagined using 3D technology to develop awareness and stewardship of freshwater ecosystems. With the support of the LakeViz3D project, a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, we now plan to roll out new 3D public and school programs this fall and winter.

*3D content created by the LakeViz3D project-UC Davis KeckCAVES, UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, Lawrence Hall of Science, ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, and Audience Viewpoints and supported in part by the National Science Foundation under NSF Award No. DRL-1114663.  Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this newsletter are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation.


Photo Credit:  © Audience Viewpoints Consulting

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Makings of a Beautiful Friendship

As the AmeriCorps member here at ECHO I have the privilege of working with the preschool science play program in partnership with the YMCA.  Part of my responsibility is to assist the YMCA facilitator by interacting with the caretakers as well as encourage the little ones to partake of the various learning play stations. This is part of the Early Learning Readiness program (ELR) that began in January here at ECHO.

Children, teens and young adults are a lively, engaging and "dramatic" bunch and they always make my days interesting. It's fun to assist them in channeling their natural energies into programs and projects that can help them grow personally, creatively, socially and intellectually.

From left to right Agoth, little brother Passy,
Older brother Kennedy and Johaly. Agoth and Johaly
participated in the Improvise Me workshop.
From this idea a new budding relationship between North End Studios and ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center has emerged. Together we've created a program for children that would allow them to deliver a message of stewardship and environmental caring through various dramatic presentations.

The first workshop, Improvise me, was a collaboration of theatrical expression intertwined with the participant’s natural imagination that resulted in the actors becoming the story line while the popular Dr. Seuss story, “ Oh The Places You’ll Go “ was narrated. The children learned about team work and character building. They also learned about the transition of a story line and the importance of conveying a meaningful story to their audience. From an artist point of view, showing the youth how to bring their natural talent alive was challenging but a wonderful experience.

You can check out a glimpse of their performance here:


Watching the wide grins appear on their faces as they came up with something clever to do and seeing them enjoy working together as a team was priceless.

We are now working on our second workshop, Puppetry and the Environment, which teaches the importance of being responsible stewards of not only Lake Champlain but also places outside of our region that may get neglected or taken for granted. During this program the children will enjoy a field trip to ECHO to learn more about the Lake and the things they can do that will have positive impact on the health of the Lake Champlain Basin. At ECHO we call this the "one drop" concept, where one decision or action can create ripples of positive results. The students will use what they have learned at ECHO for the basis of their puppet creations and story line.

Workshop II, Puppetry and the Environment is a free 6-week workshop that will be held at North End Studios Mondays and Wednesdays from 3-5 pm Starting April 7th 2014 through May 14, 2014. The workshop will culminate in a public performance by the students at ECHO on May 15, 2014.

Teaching children at a very young age, about the importance of taking care of our world not only instills
in them a sense of pride for where they live but it encourages them to educate others. It is important to create life-long learners and educators about our beautiful region and the earlier we can impart this knowledge and enthusiasm, the better off we will all be.

Here is ECHO's full "One Drop" message: 
All it takes is one drop to change our world
To make a difference
To create a ripple that moves and rolls and merges with other ripples
A perpetual motion of change and evolution
One building on the other, one dependent upon the other
All starting with one drop… 
To change an action
Change direction
Change a mind.

Rebuilding a watershed table

Maintaining a watershed is a challenge whether you're talking about the Lake Champlain watershed or the watershed table play table on the top floor of ECHO.

A stripped down watershed table
Every few years, ECHO's Facilities Department staff drain down the watershed table, dry it out and reseal it with resin to ensure the longevity of the table and to return it to full operation for our guests to enjoy.

Every so often, that process goes off the deep end and we have to sand it all the way down to the fiberglass form within the table. This helps us to basically start from scratch to build a strong new form for the watershed. The table is given time to dry out and then resin is applied repeatedly to build a beautiful new watertight watershed for our guests to play in!
Components of the watershed table awaiting
additional resin treatments


This year's refurbish also includes new boats, buildings and barns along the "shoreline" of our miniature watershed.

The sanding is a slow, dusty process. Working with the heavy, thick resin, which is the best resin for rough and tumble 'habitats', is a challenge as it tends to setup within fifteen minutes after it's mixed with the hardener.

A view of a section of the watershed
table that has been successfully restored.
Refurbishing and resealing the watershed table is one of the more challenging projects for Facilities Department staff, but it's well worth it when we walk by and see guests enjoying their little watershed once again.


Imagine if our real Lake Champlain watershed was that easy to refurbish! Actually it is. It just takes all of us doing our "One Drop"; that one thing we can do to help make the Lake a cleaner lake. For Facilities staff, our "One Drop" is to get out and remove snow before it gets packed down by guests and other pedestrians so we can clear our sidewalks without using de-icer. What's your "One Drop"?

Watch ECHO's "one drop" video.