Discovering science wonders right in our own backyard

University/museum partnerships benefit all parties and local communities, says the education school dean at Sacred Heart University, which recently took over management of the nearby Discovery Museum.
By: | January 1, 2021
Discovery Museum in Bridgeport, CT. Photo: Sacred Heart University, Tracy Deer-Mirek 11/18/20Discovery Museum in Bridgeport, Conn. Photo: Sacred Heart University, Tracy Deer-Mirek 11/18/20

There is good news, and better news, both in short supply these days. An educational, inspirational and scientific pillar of our community, the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut, has forged a new working partnership with its next-door neighbor, Sacred Heart University, to infuse renewed energy and growth, ensure continued STEM interactive learning and serve as a beacon for students and science lovers, educators and families.

Michael Alfano, Sacred Heart University (Photo by Tracy Deer-Mirek 2018)

Michael Alfano, Sacred Heart University (Photo by Tracy Deer-Mirek 2018)

A stalwart of hands-on learning for thousands of regional visitors, the Discovery Museum and its popular planetarium have hosted countless school field trips, classes and nonprofit organizations, summer and after-school programs and generations of enthusiastic supporters. Well known for its homegrown and nationally recognized science activities and exhibits, it opened its doors in 1962; coincidentally, that was one year before SHU was chartered. Originally named the Museum of Art, Science and Industry, its early focus was centered on fine arts, but it transformed itself into a regional science center, while continuing to feature local artists in gallery spaces.

Like the world it showcases, emulates and explores, Discovery Museum—and similar facilities across the nation—must continually take stock of changing client and community needs, scientific advances, the sobering reality of skyrocketing operating costs and the need to remain relevant, invigorating and fresh. Discovery Museum has performed admirably, attracting young students and patrons who, in turn, brought new generations of thrilled learners through its doors.

Even before COVID-19 temporarily halted operations, the museum had been looking for new partnerships to strengthen and upgrade operations while preserving its respected and popular legacy. This relationship with SHU, long in the making, is just the infusion they—and we—have been working toward.

One might question the wisdom of running the museum, especially as the pandemic rages. But to us, the synergistic opportunities this presents are far-reaching, dynamic and exciting, while embracing both organizations’ missions.

The university will manage the museum and its staff, update facilities and exhibits, and install a new joint leadership team through expanded board membership and the recruiting of experienced operations personnel. The museum currently is upgrading, thanks to $1.8 million in state funding; work will continue and expand.

One might ask “why now?” or question the wisdom of encompassing P-12 youth science learning and the challenges of running the museum, especially as the pandemic rages. But to us, the synergistic opportunities this presents are far-reaching, dynamic and exciting, while embracing both organizations’ missions.

By leveraging our mutual strengths in science, the arts, media and technology, SHU will increase school district involvement and future collaborative initiatives. We envision producing web-based resources for STEM/STEAM teachers and integrating museum content with other university assets, such as our public broadcasting station, WSHU, the performing arts program, the Community Theatre in Fairfield and its many partners in the community. Students involved in complementary areas such as hospitality, health sciences, nursing and management also will benefit from this relationship.

SHU has long established itself as a regional STEM leader. We have robust local public/private partnerships with P-12 school programs, including successful mentoring, volunteer and teacher internship programs, Upward Bound, weekend and summer Horizons at SHU projects, as well as youth environmental outreach. The university plans to host various STEM-area student events such as science-based competitions and to exhibit STEM content that is strategically aligned to Next Generation Science Standards.

The museum will serve as a professional development hub for the region’s STEM and computer science education communities, while the university creates exhibit content that enhances teaching concepts for SHU’s Farrington College of Education and College of Arts and Sciences. Options include internships for students in education, marketing, media, management, communications, graphic design, artificial intelligence, IT and more. Faculty will be encouraged to develop exhibits for SHU classes and the public, expand web-based and social media outreach and learning, encourage research collaborations and provide new jobs and economic growth.

Other institutions across the country have or are looking into similar museum relationships to integrate academic missions that benefit both the university and the surrounding community. A perfect example here in Connecticut is the highly successful Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, among the oldest, largest, and most prolific university natural history museums in the world.

For now, most museums across the country are closed, school field trips canceled, family visits on hold. As we emerge from this challenging period, renewal and optimism will replace the isolation, fear and frustration that has epitomized these past several months. SHU will use this interim period to focus on transitional planning, new programming and the Discovery Museum’s continued tactical and strategic evolution. Myriad new opportunities await us, limited only by our thirst for information and our imaginations, two wells that have never run low at Discovery Museum or at SHU.

Michael Alfano is the dean of the Isabelle Farrington College of Education at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

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