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SciWorks seeks ways to differentiate itself from, catch up to, regional science centers

SciWorks seeks ways to differentiate itself from, catch up to, regional science centers

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“There he goes!”


“There he goes!”

That was all 2-year-old Ali James could say before bursting into giggles each time one of SciWorks’ two river otters dove into the water and glided gracefully along the glass in front Ali and her friend, Tinsley Whiteheart.

Katy Whiteheart, mom to 2-year-old Tinsley, and Cambria James, Ali’s mother, were visiting SciWorks on a Friday morning, taking advantage, they said, of something to do so close to home. James had just joined the museum. With one young daughter and another on the way, she said she thought it was a good time to join.

Bringing the girls to SciWorks is a nice way to spend a couple of hours, they said.

“It’s so close you don’t feel like you have to spend the whole day,” Whiteheart said.

The James family is part of a small, but growing, group of SciWorks member families — people who have purchased a yearlong membership to the center that gives them unlimited admission and other perks from the science center tucked away into the winding tangle of streets and hills adjacent to U.S. 52 on Winston-Salem’s north side.

Paul Kortenaar, who was named executive director in January, said the center has been working to build the community of members and now has more than 900 member families. Kortenaar said he views membership as more than a financial boon for SciWorks; it’s an opportunity to build a community around the facility.

Building that community, a support base, is an important first step in future growth plans for SciWorks. Right now, it lags behind larger regional centers with bigger budgets. The Greensboro Science Center, Durham’s Museum of Life and Science and Discovery Place in Charlotte are all expected to draw as many as 400,000 visitors this year. SciWorks annually attracts about 80,000.

That’s not to say that SciWorks doesn’t have its own set of attractions.

View an interactive map of SciWorks

For people like James, SciWorks is a community staple. It’s somewhere she visited as a kid on school field trips and now where she brings her family. It’s a lot different now, she said, than when she visited as a kid.

The museum has been there since 1974 when it moved from a space in Reynolda Village to the site of the former Forsyth Nursing and Care Center. Large overhauls, financed by capital campaigns, took place in 1992, 2002 and throughout the later part of the last decade. The newest exhibit, the outdoor science center, opened in 2012.

Still the changes made at SciWorks pale in comparison to some of the bond referendums, renovations and expansions fueling crowds in Greensboro, Charlotte and Durham. With the large-scale support and buy-in from the community, SciWorks has struggled to keep up. Staff members say it’s been pigeon-holed as only a place for small children.

“We don’t want to just be known (as a museum) for fifth grade and under,” said Karla Jeselson, SciWorks’ animal-care technician.

Neither does Kortenaar. New to SciWorks in January, Kortenaar is looking for ways to bring the center into a new era. A challenge, to be sure, but the success of science centers in Greensboro, Charlotte and Durham show it’s not impossible.

A bold step

Less than 10 years ago, the Greensboro Science Center and SciWorks were more alike than different.

They were small, but active, community museums. Then, in 2004, a new executive director was hired to take what was then the Greensboro Natural Science Center to new heights. Nine years, a $20 million bond referendum and several massive projects later, Glenn Dobrogosz can see just how big a risk he took.

“All of this may not have happened,” he said. “We had to be bold.”

Today, the Greensboro Science Center brings in about 80 percent of its $5.2 million budget through earned income and relies on tax dollars for the other 20 percent. SciWorks still relies on tax dollars from Winston-Salem, Forsyth County and the state for about 40 percent of its meager $1.3 million budget. Greensboro was not always the big budget operation it is today, though. Before its zoo opened in 2008, Greensboro’s annual budget was less than $2 million.

View photos of the Greensboro Science Center

Dobrogosz says he remembers those days, remembers being laughed at and having audiences snicker under their breath when he first described his vision for the future of the museum. It took several years and more than 500 presentations to community members, but now the museum has more than tripled its number of visitors.

It’s the only facility in North Carolina with a zoo, museum and aquarium. Their strategy, Dobrogosz said, was to compete by doing something no one else was doing.

“We’re trying to out-compel people to come to us,” he said.

It’s working. When its new Carolina SciQuarium opened in June, more than 100,000 people visited during the first 45 days. And already, plans are in the works to continue the expansion.

New jewel tanks will be installed to offer a greater variety of aquatic species. Breeding programs are in the works for several of the animals. The outdated kids section will be gutted and turned into an aquarium exhibit suitable for the museum’s youngest visitors.

In the next two years, the entire museum will be overhauled and expanded. Next year, a treetop activity course will open. By 2016, the zoo will have nearly doubled again. A new section will be built, designed around endangered species. The focal point will be orangutans, Dobrogosz said. Just about the only thing recognizable about the museum will be the walls.

“There was stagnancy for a time period, and it needed to be reignited behind a vision and a plan and a goal,” Dobrogosz said. “You don’t think ‘Greensboro: tourism,’ but were trying to change that.”

Always changing

Charlotte benefits from already being a tourism destination.

The hard part about that, says Logan Stewart, former manager of marketing and public relations for Discovery Place, is standing out from a crowded marketplace of things to do.

Discovery Place has managed to do just that, drawing more than 400,000 people each year. For Discovery Place, the key was first gutting the entire building and then working to keep things fresh. After a massive overhaul that left nothing but the walls, it’s unlikely that any two visits to Charlotte’s Discovery Place will be the same.

View photos of Discovery Place

“It’s newer, cleaner, more innovative,” Stewart said. “It really gives people the opportunity to come in and rather than telling them, ‘Here, this is what you do in an exhibit,’ they can do it themselves.”

Visitors can design and build their own shoe (or jewelry, or purse or anything else conceivably made out of duct tape and cardboard), film their own stop-motion video and see for themselves if it’s really possible to lie on a bed of nails unharmed.

“It’s an open-ended way to discover science on your own,” Stewart said.

So not only can visitors create their own new experience every time, but there will likely always be something new to the space. Stewart said the museum’s multiple daily shows change by the day, week and month. Interactive experiments and collections on display change monthly, she said. Rotating temporary exhibits change every few months.

“We are one of the biggest attractions in the state, so we try to stay on top of that,” Stewart said. “We stay relevant to current science; it’s an obligation.”

All of that, of course, takes money. At more than $8.5 million, Discovery Place has one of the largest budgets of any science museum in the state and nearly 70 percent of that comes from ticket sales. The budget is supplemented by donations, grants and an endowment. Just 2 percent of Discovery Place’s budget now comes from tax dollars.

Creating an experience

Durham, too, has been able to earn the lion’s share of its budget. The Museum of Life and Science earns about 80 percent of its $6.5 million budget, brought in by the 440,000 people who visit each year. The Durham facility relies on tax dollars to make up the rest.

The museum sees more people walk through its doors each year than the science centers in Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Charlotte. A major overhaul during the last decade brought in new life and energy to a center that was getting tired. An $11 million bond supported the majority of the work. About $3 million from grants and private donations completed the financing.

View photos of the Museum of Life and Science

The result: a museum experience that offers innovative hands-on activities, allowing visitors to learn science from the inside out.

In “Catch the Wind,” a multipart interactive outdoor exhibit, visitors can feel the effects of the wind, manipulate it, watch it work, create it and even get right in the middle of it by strapping into the museum’s bungee trampolines.

“Catch the Wind” is just one part of the Museum of Life and Science’s expansive outdoor science park. It also includes a six-acre wildlife and wetland habitat and brought back a popular feature from the museum’s past. Unlike roped-off relics sitting in museum basements, the Dinosaur Trail that reopened in 2009 allows visitors to get up close and personal with the animals that roamed the Earth millions of years ago.

“Future thinking of how the museum might expand using its 84-acre campus emphasized expansion of natural science learning opportunities,” said Leslie Pepple, communications manager for the Museum of Life and Science.

“Strategic plans resulted in the development of an interactive science experience … linking people with plants, animals and interactive exhibits in an outdoor environment.”

That same philosophy — using interactive experiences to link visitors to the science — is consistent throughout the Museum of Life and Science. Watch a tornado form, then stick your arm inside it. Use pulleys and catapults to build a working contraption, then test it. Crawl inside a full-scale lunar lander.

The next level

Those kinds of experiences are what SciWorks currently offers here and there, on a smaller scale. Kortenaar said the goal is to offer more, but that will take time and funding. Older, more static exhibits, will change out as they can afford to replace them, he said.

With a budget of just $1.3 million, that will take time. Instead of waiting around though, Kortenaar is looking for ways to differentiate itself.

Where SciWorks can’t match up, it hopes to carve a new niche that will set it apart.

Since many students will visit SciWorks during school time, Jeselson said the museum is working on educational programming that can engage an older audience. For her part, Jeselson tries to plan animal encounters that hold the interest of any audience and keep the museum offerings fresh and new.

“We try and bring in things kids can touch,” she explained. “It’s an excellent way to make connections, when they can put their hands on something.”

That focus on education — for all ages — is where SciWorks hopes to set itself apart.

The museum has high hopes for a new era under Kortenaar. Kortenaar came from the Ontario Science Museum, where he served as director of education. SciWorks already had a strong focus on education, something Kortenaar said drew him to the job. Now, the plan is to strengthen, grow and improve that focus, Kortenaar said.

Kortenaar calls the ideal exhibit “minds on,” where visitors are required to do more than push a button and even more than manipulate a piece of the exhibit.

“We have to get (exhibits) to be ‘minds on,’” he said. “We have to get someone to think about what they’re doing.”

Those activities help build what Kortenaar calls the “skills of innovation.”

It’s an approach that Kortenaar sees as the key to propelling SciWorks into the future, in keeping it relevant. And it’s different.

Without being able to see what the future holds, Kortenaar reasons that creativity, collaboration, perseverance and risk-taking are the core skills that people will need as they move into the future. They also happen to be skills that are particularly hard for kids to learn in the current education system, he said.

Eventually, everything SciWorks offers should be imparting at least one of these traits. Some things — the hands-on puzzles and building blocks, for example — already do a good job at that, he says. Other exhibits — like some of the physics exhibits that simply ask visitors to press a button — need work.

Even those exhibits, though, do not get him down, Kortenaar said. Instead, he sees potential.

“It makes me excited,” he said, “about what’s going to be coming.”

A major expansion or overhaul like other museums have used to update spaces is unlikely without a major capital campaign or bond referendum. The growth will have to build slowly, as funding allows, especially since the museum operated at a deficit the year before Kortenaar arrived.

Couple that with a budget that’s just a fraction of other nearby science centers, SciWorks in its current state cannot compete for yearly crowds of 400,000 or more like Greensboro, Charlotte and Durham. What it can do though, is carve out a niche for itself — find something that sets it apart and makes it a destination in its own right.

Already, changes and new initiatives brought about by Kortenaar are having an impact. Memberships and attendance have been on the rise.

“I’m really excited for Paul,” said Jeselson, an animal-care technician and seven-year SciWorks employee.” He’s like a breath of fresh air.

“He can take us to the next level.”

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