Bill Finch’s enthusiasm is contagious as he walks through Bridgeport’s Discovery Museum and Planetarium and greets visitors.
On a recent tour, we encounter a parent with a camera, who is coaxing her young daughter up the steps into a model of the front of a big yellow school bus that is part of an exhibit. “Here, follow me,” Finch smiles. The little one is soon happily behind the wheel. “How did you do that?” her mother asks Finch.
Drawn to the museum when he was growing up, the former Bridgeport mayor now has an office in the building. It’s the perfect niche for the museum’s new executive director, who received the U.S. EPA National Climate Leadership Award in 2015 while mayor of Bridgeport, was a co-chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Task Force, and is a visiting climate fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany.
More than 65,000 people annually visit the museum through school and individual trips, educational outreach and public programs to see its exhibits that are colorful, fun and aim to excite kids about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
During his eight years as Bridgeport’s chief executive, Finch pushed for the city to embrace environmental sustainability and move to a so-called green economy that would attract a new generation of skilled labor. He is continuing that mission as the head of the museum, a position he assumed in January. He aims to increase attendance at the museum, boost its social media presence and coordinate staff to visit schools and discuss STEM subjects. He is also creating new exhibits and refining existing ones, as well as highlighting critical issues such as climate change, key technology such as circuitry, robotics, photonics and more.
One exhibit that will be updated is devoted to Gustave Whitehead, the Bridgeport-based aviator who some believe flew a plane in 1901, two years ahead of the Wright brothers. Finch says it’s important to present objective information about Whitehead’s contributions to aviation history and let the public form its own decisions.
In July, the state’s bond commission approved nearly $2 million for improvements, upgrades and repairs. “With the funding we recently received from the state, we can build on our success and cement the museum’s role as a STEM education hub for the city and the region,” Finch says.
Cool things to see and do
Unlike at most museums, visitors are encouraged to touch everything. “There’s nothing better than the authentic experience of knocking things over and screaming as loudly as you can and picking it up,” says a smiling Finch, who took the reins at the museum in early 2017.
Build objects from blocks and watch how an earthquake’s movement impacts them, explore circuits and sensors and more at Dare to Discover. Race carts to the bottom of a track and learn why one accelerates more quickly than the other. Cut a piece of paper along dotted lines, follow the folds and watch the helicopter you make fly to the top of the wind tunnel at Get Physical. Shoot hoops against a twisted backboard, lift your friends with a lever or hoist yourself with a pulley.
A recent partnership with Energize CT, Energy Network, lets kids explore activities that show what energy is and ways to harness, use and conserve it. Many of us know about energy generated by solar panels, water and windmills, but did you know it can be made from earth?
Drive the lunar rover around a video moon or make the astronaut moonwalk, then take your picture in the Apollo 11 spacesuit at MoonBase Discovery. “I think science museums carry the spirit of the 1960s, when President Kennedy said we’d send a man safely to the moon and back,” Finch says.
Science on a Sphere is an interactive, room-size display developed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) researchers that projects data from numerous databases — changing climate and oceans, names of cities, effects of tsunamis, coral reef risks, green carbon (carbon stored in plant life), worldwide flight patterns and more — onto a 5-foot-diameter globe.
“Here, look at this,” Finch gestures. Tiny yellow specks — representing some of the 87,000 daily worldwide flights — move east from the Americas to Europe, Africa and Asia. “The United States will become dark at midnight when fewer airplanes are leaving,” he says. Six hours of simulated time later, the yellow specks begin moving west again, as dawn arrives in the Americas.
Learning rocket science
Two grant-funded, weekly programs aim to bring STEM to students in Bridgeport schools and six surrounding suburbs.
Mighty STEM Girls introduces fourth-graders to the lives and careers of female STEM innovators and offers lessons that lets them experience STEM careers. Through separate grants, STEM Accelerators: Future Innovators, an advanced curriculum for fifth-graders and older, covers a range of STEM topics. Students learn coding, 3-D printing and design, astronomy, biology, physics, chemistry and more.
Through a five-year, $500,000 grant from NASA, museum staff developed Discover NASA, a rocketry curriculum for K-12. Museum staff teach students in grades K-8 at the adjacent Discovery Interdistrict Magnet School about space exploration, laws of motion and space science using age-appropriate lessons for each grade. “Classes at the school and here at the museum demystify NASA and make space exploration more understandable,” Finch says. The museum also runs a high school-level rocketry club, funded by the NASA grant.
“People don’t realize it was an engineering challenge to get to the moon in 10 years,” says David Mestre, manager of STEM learning programs at the planetarium and a teacher within the program. “These kids are learning how an airplane flies. We put the younger ones on a yoga ball with their arms outstretched and show them what it means when the airplane pitches up or down, and they yaw and roll.”
“Through our programs, kids demonstrate that they are capable of the same deep scientific thought and inquiry as adults. We’re trying to cultivate that interest so that our students see STEM careers as a tangible and exciting reality,” says Sarah Tropp-Pacelli, the museum’s director of STEM learning programs. “Working with them week after week, my favorite thing to see is students who show they’re not afraid of science.”
Part of Discover NASA included partnering with the University of Bridgeport and CATO, Connecticut’s sport rocketry club, to form an enrichment program for high school students. In addition to meeting NASA’s need to engage, inspire, educate and then employ, Mestre says “it’s a pipeline entry point to meet the needs of future contractors looking to fill STEM jobs.”
Kathleen O’Brady, a NASA certification systems engineer, visited the museum as a student on a field trip with a Norwalk elementary school. She was so inspired by presentations in both the Henry B. duPont III Planetarium and Challenger Learning Center, Finch says, that she now works in Florida with contractors to develop spacecraft to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station and home safely. “They don’t fly unless she says it’s OK to fly,” Mestre says.
Discovery has invited O’Brady to discuss her career and early interest in STEM at its 60th anniversary jubilee Rediscovering Discovery on Oct. 20. The event will honor the legacy of local Junior League women, whose 1958 vision incorporated, founded and opened the museum, back when it was called the Museum of Art, Science, and Industry (MASI). Tickets are $125 and can be purchased online at discoverymuseum.org.
“We still have a long way to go toward having more young girls and boys see themselves growing into a career in science,” Finch says.
Mark the calendar
SPOOKTACULAR: Exploding Jack-o’-lanterns, a mad science laboratory, live science demonstrations (featuring a Tesla coil), and the famous Pumpkin Chunkin’ exhibition (catapults and trebuchets hurling pumpkins long distances) are part of the sixth annual Spooktacular on Oct. 27 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Costumes are encouraged.
THANKFUL FRIDAY!: The museum’s second annual Thankful Friday! is its answer to Black Friday. Kids and their families can craft handmade gifts for loved ones, decorate ornaments for patients at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, create holiday greeting cards for veterans and servicemen, and more.
SNOWFLAKE FESTIVAL: On Dec. 29-30, kids receive a pair of snowflake glasses that can be used scavenger-hunt style with different-colored bulbs in the galleries. Make snowflakes in the Energy Garage and watch live science demonstrations.