Springfield, MO

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A Conversation With ... Laurie Duncan

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Tell us about the Discovery Center.
The Discovery Center is a place where people of all ages and all backgrounds can come explore and experience science and culture concepts. One of my favorite things to tell parents is that this is a place where you never have to say those dreaded words, “Don’t touch,” … because we believe the power of learning comes from being able to do an experience. … At any given time, we have more than 200 exhibits on the floor. We have more than 50,000 square feet of exhibit space, and we try to tuck things into every nook and cranny we can find.

What do you do as the center’s education director?
My role is to oversee the variety of education programs that we have. I have a team of four full-time educators. Three are devoted specifically to taking programs out into the schools in the surrounding region. We’ll drive up to a two-hour radius. And I have one educator who’s dedicated specifically to distance learning, (using) videoconferencing technology to deliver programs nationwide as well as internationally. We’ve delivered programs in Canada, Mexico and Australia, … All of our programs are fee-based.

How are new exhibits chosen for  the Discovery Center?
We use a team approach. My role is to find out from teachers where the gaps are in science education. We have an exhibits group that meets once a month, and one of the things that I bring to the table is what I’m hearing from teachers. … Teachers evaluate our programs, so the feedback is one of the tools I use to help our museum decide some new exhibits to consider.

Does the center ever turn to the business community for help with exhibits?
We do. In fact, we have a traveling exhibit right now that came in during January and will be here through May and is sponsored by Mercy-St. John’s. It’s called “Every Body Eats,” and the emphasis is on good nutrition habits. And in the fall, the second part will be “Let’s Get Active,” focused on physical fitness. St. John’s has partnered with us not only to bring in the exhibit but also to be a sponsor in additional activities and events, such as a members-only event in January. … We are constantly seeking resources from the business community and would love more. Traveling exhibits are horrendously expensive. … Prices can range from $10,000 to one I saw a couple weeks ago, about guitars and the science of sound, and it was $150,000 for three months. … We had a discussion recently with Jordan Valley Innovation Center to look into the prospect of developing some type of nanotechnology or nanoscience traveling exhibit because that is their field of expertise.

What makes it challenging to get students excited about studying science?
There’s a lot of high-level vocabulary built in, and science has a language of its own, so probably one of the biggest hurdles is to get students to understand that science isn’t scary, that it’s exciting to think about, and it impacts our daily lives.

What is traffic like for school field trips to the center?
It’s very seasonal. Fall is very slow in here. We’ve tried to find ways to get teachers to take advantage of doing a field trip in the fall rather than in spring. Spring is insane, starting about (mid-April), almost every day, we’ll start having 300 to 400 kids in the museum, and that will continue through the month of May.

Are there other hurdles to learning at the center that businesses can help address?
The number one barrier to more teachers being able to use our programs and impact more kids with science education is the finances. If we can get scholarship money, we will (use it) for kids. Bank of America has been a tremendous supporter to help provide scholarships for students who receive free lunches. … The other piece of that is that when schools come for field trips, there are bus costs, and a lot of (schools) don’t want to provide money for transportation. That’s a huge factor, especially for some of the rural and outlying communities.
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