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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:

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: