Giving Thought: Making space for science after school

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Do you remember the first time that the wonders of science commanded your attention? Was it a meteor shower on a starry night, or dinosaur bones embedded in sandstone? Maybe you saw an exhibit in an observatory or natural history museum?

Since 2005, Aspen Science Center (ASC) has delivered science to local youth through events, hands-on demonstrations and out-of-school STEM programming (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). ASC president David Houggy says the center plans to expand its footprint with a new home in the midvalley.

Aspen Community Foundation: Why create a new ‘base of operations’ now?

David Houggy: Originally, most of our activities were in Aspen, such as the Physics for Kids barbecues and the annual Science Fair. As we’ve grown, we’ve discovered a large need in downvalley communities. Effective STEM programs are best delivered in the communities where children live, so we intend to open our first permanent space in the coming years. It’s tentatively named the Discovery Center and will be located in Basalt.

In the middle and lower valley, STEM activities are less prevalent. Aspen Science Center has extended several of our programs downvalley in the past few years, and we’ve had an enthusiastic response from children and parents alike.

ACF: Will the Discovery Center change ASC’s existing programming?

DH: No. This is an expansion of our programming, and a response to STEM-related needs throughout the valley.

A permanent home will allow us to deliver learning experiences that we simply can’t provide now. ASC currently operates as a “science center without walls” because we don’t have a physical home. Everything has to be portable and easy to set up and take down in only a few hours. This makes it impractical to offer the kind of project-based educational opportunities that yield longer-term benefits for kids.

The Discovery Center will be a relatively small, 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot storefront location, intended specifically for local youth. It will be open every day after school, potentially on weekends, and in the summer. There we can set up more permanent, complex and compelling activities, and we can operate more efficiently and effectively. Our professional staff will run the Discovery Center along with high-school Intern Educators (IEs). Our IE positions already provide part-time jobs, training and experience for highly motivated high school students, but at the Discovery Center we’ll expand the IE program and offer richer educational opportunities for the IEs themselves. We’ll also use volunteer staff, allowing senior citizens and others to give back and impart their wisdom to young people.

ACF: How would you describe the role of science in American culture today?

DH: Science is an indispensable tool for understanding the world around us. Science allows us to make new discoveries and create inventions that better mankind and lead to economic and social progress. STEM jobs pay higher wages and are growing at 1.7 times the rate of non-STEM jobs. These positions are responsible for a lot of the United States’ growth and they’re critical to our national defense.

Moreover, STEM training has proven to be extraordinarily valuable to individuals in other fields. The scientific process entails formulating questions about our world, seeking relevant data to answer the questions, thinking critically and arriving at tentative conclusions. Professional scientists then examine and re-examine the conclusions and seek additional data that may alter the original conclusions. This critical-thinking process is valuable in any endeavor.

ASC has been offering adult programs that we call “The Science of What Interests You.” Examples are our Science of Music Program (a collaboration with Aspen Music Festival and School) and Science of Cooking (with Cooking School of Aspen).

ACF: If the Discovery Center is successful, then how will the Roaring Fork Valley be different?

DH: Imagine growing up as a young child today with a penchant for science. If you’re lucky, your parents understand science and the importance of a STEM education, and they will nurture your budding interests. Kids who live in large metropolitan areas often have a good science center, a plethora of after-school science programs, and universities and research labs with outreach programs. They often have teachers and mentors to guide them.

But if you grow up in the mountains, this may not be the case. There may not be abundant after-school science programming or other resources. If your parents are not science supporters, then you may be on your own. The Discovery Center will be Aspen Science Center’s attempt to ensure that all children in the Roaring Fork Valley have access to quality after-school science programming.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.