News Column

Science Center focuses on reinventing itself, reaching out to younger children

July 24, 2014

By David Damron, Orlando Sentinel



July 24--The rumpus of children's voices inside the Orlando Science Center on summer mornings can drown out most any casual conversation.

But these days, the center's backers are more concerned that community leaders hear why it's vital that the non-profit keep reinventing itself.

The center's leaders struck out last week when they unveiled an ambitious fundraising campaign that aims to raise up to $35 million over the coming years. Orange County leaders balked at what they perceived as a request to come up with a third of that goal by themselves.

The center's President and CEO JoAnn Newman said that wasn't what she was asking for in her pitch, though.

On Wednesday, Newman gave a tour to the Orlando Sentinel, explaining that a more multi-pronged public fundraising effort is always what was planned. She also offered more details on why this campaign is needed.

"What we're trying to do... is really revitalize the Science Center," Newman said. Some of the exhibits have been around for years, and as far back as the current facility's opening in 1997.

Newman said the goal includes expanding two core missions. One is strengthening its focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. And the other expanding and improving experiences geared toward the center's youngest customers.

Many metro areas across the country have these offerings, which they call children's museums. And Newman's research shows Orlando is the largest city without one.

A key distinction between a regular science center such as Orlando's and children's museum is a focus in age. Science centers engage audiences of all age groups, while children's museums target those 7 years old and younger, including toddlers.

Orlando tries to make up for that with its own Kid's Town offerings, which includes the iconic Orange Grove Factory exhibit.

But this younger set is the fastest growing users of the center, Newman said, and they need more.

And as popular as that orange picking and sorting exhibit is, it's been around since the center's present facility opened nearly two decades ago. One observer Wednesday noted that his college-age daughter once picked oranges there.

In contrast, step into the Chicago Children's Museum, and it's clear what Orlando is missing. For instance, the Windy City kid's museum boasts a three-story rope climbing schooner that runs from the cargo hold to a crow's nest.

These climbing exercises can nurture spatial recognition and problem-solving skills, and allow children to test motor skills and physical limits in strength and balance.

And while both facilities have dinosaur dig exhibits, for instance, Orlando doesn't have anything like that rope-climb adventure, or the Chicago facility's toddler space to interact with parents.

Those rope and toddler offerings are part of Orlando's future plans, officials say. The goal is to nearly quadruple the Orlando center's Kid's Town from its existing 3,000 square feet of space.

"It's all about cooperative play," Newman said. "There is so much learning that takes place through play."

The other major thrust the center wants to build on is science, technology, engineering and math learning -- the same a subject that attracted Gov. Rick Scott to use the facility as a backdrop for his latest STEM policy push this week.

"The overarching umbrella for everything we do is around STEM," Newman said.

One major focus the center wants to build upon is environmental science, with focus in water and energy conservation, and greater exposure to nature. Plans also call for giving students a lab-style experience, as well as offering health and wellness exhibits.

The center wants to bolster its immersive technology, such as offering a full dome digital theater experience, and modeling and simulation exhibits.

Board member Oscar Anderson said that a mix of private, philanthropic and public money will be sought to reach the center's goal, and keeping the local government funding mix at less than half of that total has been the priority.

Newman said the center's last major campaign relied on about 60 percent of its money from the public. Those local funding partners could include the city of Orlando, Orange County, the state, and surrounding counties.

"It's going to be a year-long dialogue," said Anderson, a lobbyist and partner at Southern Strategy Group. "We're going to leave no stone un-turned."

ddamron@tribun.com or 407-420-5311407-420-5311

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(c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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Source: Orlando Sentinel (FL)


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