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Mountain Home Magazine

Taking Learning on the Road

Aug 01, 2019 03:23PM
by Ann Duckett


Twenty-seven years ago imagination sparked innovation among a small group of scientists dedicated to community education, fueling a dream to one day open the region’s first science center. This space would engage young minds while reinforcing critical learning skills gained through science, technology, engineering, and math—we know it these days as STEM. That dream launched Corning’s Science & Discovery Center.

Imagination met reality in 1994 when those visionaries formed a non-profit organization. SDC opened its doors to the community a year later. The center served as a drop-in site and also offered outreach science programs to area schools. For the next decade it provided enrichment in the form of fun and engaging activities, as well as hands-on science exhibits meant to pique enthusiasm and interest in science careers.

These dreamers—scientists Linda Marks, Jacquie Brown, Jerry Fong, and Dr. Dale R. Wexell from Corning’s Sullivan Park Science and Technology Center, Inc.—remained an integral part of the organization, helping define and guide it. Dr. Wexell, a founding member, served as the first president, remaining at the helm for twelve years.

“You have to be passionate about what you’re doing to keep an idea like this moving forward. We’ve focused on STEM academic disciplines since day one; to promote these education initiatives is extremely important,” says Patricia Dann, director of Development and Communications, former SDC executive director, and a founding member.

In 2005, growing pains led the organization in a new direction. After reviewing critical data relating to the success of the center and overall programming, the board of directors determined that students were best served in the environment where they gathered, learned, and studied. Going forward, SDC would focus on delivering robust programs through outreach science education only, delivered in the classroom. A stand-alone center was no longer viable.

As difficult as it was to close the center, the brilliance behind the decision to “go mobile” created a nimble organization, enabling it to expand its programming reach and radius.

Today, SDC is regarded as one of the top educational non-profit organizations in the region. The team is comprised of an active and diverse board of directors (eighteen business leaders from ten different surrounding towns and cities), Patricia Dann, and four road-worthy professional educators led by Executive Director Lisa Gibson. Together they work to deliver relevant, interesting, and fun experiences in STEM for pre-k, elementary, and middle school students.

Through this partnership, schools benefit immensely from another layer of instruction in the classroom. Material is delivered through curriculum-related learning activities, often in the form of hands-on science experiments. These exercises are designed to capture the student’s attention and motivation, leading to a deeper understanding of daily applications. These foundational skills relate to increased confidence and encourage exploration, opening minds—and doors—to future career opportunities.

“The importance of career skills in STEM cannot be emphasized enough; they are the building blocks for new product and process innovation at Corning Incorporated,” says Dr. David Morse, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Corning Incorporated. “The work begins in our local elementary, middle and high schools. Corning is committed to advancing STEM education in the southern tier of New York and the northern tier of Pennsylvania to ensure the flow of STEM talent, and to raise the standard of living for families resulting from productive careers. That commitment includes helping implement STEM curricula in more than twenty-five school districts, offering summer experience programs at Corning’s R&D Center, and sponsoring the formation of organizations like the Science & Discovery Center. STEM-prepared students have a very positive future ahead of them.”

Learning continues beyond the classroom, as SDC offers after-school programs at libraries, youth centers, and other community locations. Through the Summer of Innovation programs children can attend a variety of camps offering special interest topics that include field biology, photography, music, and cooking. Camps are held at partner locations including Corning Community College and local school districts. SDC participates in dozens of special events and has a Mobile Lab—a van that brings the excitement of discovery and exploration directly to the community.

Support from educational, civic, business, and charitable organizations remains vital to SDC’s financial health. The first $25,000 gifted in 1994 came from Wegmans in Corning. That partnership continues today. Annually, programs are funded through grants, memberships, school districts, and donations made by trusts and local corporations.

Last year, seventeen regional sponsors joined the Corning Foundation to support summer programs; in all fifteen different foundations, companies and individuals came together to underwrite SDC programs—including the United Way of the Southern Tier and John Ullman and Associates Foundation.

When asked about obstacles, Patricia offers, “The general public has no idea how vast a program this is. One of our greatest challenges over the last twenty-five years has been maintaining a presence in the community as we moved the center from one location to another, and then to an outreach-only program. Still another challenge has been increasing awareness of our programs. We’ve managed to move forward with incredible support from the community despite the changes in school budgets from year to year.”

The organization is constantly developing new programs and modules, and experimenting with new ways of bringing STEM topics to students. One of particular interest is Chemistry for Girls, a class designed for middle school female students to explore the world of chemistry, in an all-girl, after-school program led by a female scientist.

The Center is planning a number of special events to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary. Find out more at (607) 734-7740 or visit sciencediscoverycenter.org.