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Monday, July 28, 2014

Lessons from the Pacific Coast, The Hatfield Center, Newport, Oregon

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 third installment.


Lessons from the Pacific Coast
The Hatfield Center, Newport, Oregon
by Phelan R. Fretz, Ph. D.


The Oregon coast
I had always wanted to visit the Hatfield Marine Science Center on the coast of Oregon. The Hatfield Center was named for a homegrown environmentally-focused US Senator, Mark O. Hatfield, in the 1970's. Similarly, Senator Patrick Leahy was honored when we opened ECHO's facility on the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in 2003.
Research vessel
Driving down the breathtaking Oregon coast, with the ocean crashing on the volcanic, black rock fingers reaching out from the cliffs above, I rounded the bend to see a stunning bridge framing Newport's inlet - the mouth of the Yaquina River. Filling 45 acres in this protected harbor lies the Hatfield Marine Science Center. First you see the flotilla of research vessels, with NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency, NSF (National Science Foundation) and OSU (Oregon State University) embossed on their bridges. Then your eye moves to the sprawl of buildings housing eight federal and state partners. Mixed in these buildings is their public Visitor Center, the focus of my visit.


Upon first blush, the thriving Hatfield Visitor Center would seem very different from ECHO and the Leahy Center. It is 6x the size of ECHO, has eight national research and public outreach partners (300 staff onsite) with significant investments compared to ECHO's one (UVM), and its focus, marine instead of fresh water, would suggest there's not much for ECHO to learn. But, upon closer inspection, there is a great deal similar to ECHO - the Visitor Center serves 150,000 (mostly in the summer), lies in a small community and has built its public experience on the scientific research of their partners.


The Hatfield Visitors Center is modeling three ideas ECHO should consider based on their partnership with Oregon Sea Grant, a NOAA program integrating research and public outreach. As the nation's first Sea Grant facility awarded 'institutional status,' the Hatfield Center has Sea Grant running the Visitor Center as public outreach, convening leaders when critical environmental issues arise and conducting visitor research.


Dave Hansen, Sea Grant's site manager for the Hatfield Visitor Center, indicated "We staff the visitor experience with five educators and a bunch of aquarists to care for the fish. Because of Sea Grant's support, we ask only for a suggested donation at the door - $5 per person, $20 per family." Dave continues, "Most of the exhibit ideas come from the Hatfield Center's scientists; focusing on fisheries management, tide pool animals, invasive species, and their most popular, impacts of earthquakes and tsunamis." The University of Vermont's Sea Grant program is focused on programs for schools and public outreach. What can/should the role of Sea Grant be in the daily experience at ECHO?


Tsunami tank
In addition to an exhibit, the Japanese tsunami provided the second model idea ECHO should consider, convening leadership when an environmental crisis emerges. Dave explained, "Months after Japan's tsunami, pieces of a commercial dock showed up on our shores."  With great concern, he added, "We are talking about giant concrete structures, a hundred feet long, threats to navigation and covered with invasive species. And to our surprise, the species attached to the docks were alive after their ocean journey, potentially adding new
Live animal tanks
species to our already stressed ecosystem." In response to this crisis, Oregon Sea Grant convened scientists and policy makers to define what to do. Dave added, "We were very successful. Resources were allocated. As more debris arrived, we had a plan." For another issue, with direct implications for Vermont, Dave shared, "All of us in the northwest were struggling with how to stop invasive species arriving on personal boats, a huge issue for the region's lakes and ponds. So we convened all the AG's (Attorney Generals) from the neighboring states and they came up with a coordinated approach." The region now has mandatory boat checks and education programs.
As we prepare to launch the second Leahy Center Environmental Summit in April 2015, is there a role for Sea Grant? Should we be partnering to convene leaders to tackle special problems such as in Oregon?


Dungeness crab
The third model idea is just getting started. About a decade ago, Oregon State University, in partnership with US Sea Grant, launched new professorships in 'free-choice learning', aka, learning that happens in museums, zoos, aquariums and science centers. Two of the nation's thought leaders in this discipline, John Falk and Lynn Dierking, moved to Oregon State's main campus in Corvallis, an hour east of the Hatfield Center. "Because of their leadership", Shawn Rowe, free choice learning leader at the Hatfield Visitors Center, indicated, "we are gaining a much better idea about how people learn in our institutions." Shawn continues about his work, "Recently, we've moved to the idea that museums should be a public forum where people come to make meaning. We're taking visitors seriously as self-directed learners and investigating whether their goals and interests match the museum's goals and offerings - and if not, where do we make the shift?"  The free choice learning work at the Hatfield Visitor Center challenges us at ECHO. Should we consider conducting 'free-choice learning' research with our guests?


I witnessed three models for how Sea Grant is an integral partner in how the Hatfield Marine Science Center engages multiple audiences. What does all this mean for ECHO? I forward to working with Vermont's Sea Grant and ECHO's board and staff to define the answers.  

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, Ph. D.


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.