Resilient Creativity: Rhode Island Museum of Science and Art

The Rhode Island Museum of Science and Art—a member of Breaking Down Barriers's Museum Collaborative—takes a flexible approach to its programming in order to meet the needs of its guests. We interviewed the museum's Executive Director Bonnie Epstein as part of our research into the needs of small science museums focused on underserved populations.

A makerspace activity,

As part of its effort to create effective climate change and evolution outreach experiences, NCSE is crafting partnerships with small museums, particularly those in rural areas or that focus on underserved populations. Museums garner great public trust and are able to create learning environments where even non-scientists feel comfortable. Being able to leverage these inherent museum resources is crucial for NCSE’s mission of breaking down barriers between science and the public.

As with any partnership, understanding each stakeholder’s needs at an early stage in the collaboration is key. In particular, we are interested in understanding how NCSE can provide programming that meets our goals while also helping our partner museums grow towards theirs. Partnering with small museums often requires different considerations than what is true for large museums. Staff often wear many hats at smaller museums, and may have to craft experiences that can be flexible for spaces that vary. Understanding the needs of smaller museums can help us provide climate change and evolution programming to a broader audience that may be distant from bigger, informal science institutions. To that end, NCSE is conducting a research project to understand the specific needs of small museums. We hope this project will allow us both to reach more scientifically underserved populations and serve as a template for future collaboration between scientists and museums.

While conducting this research, we’ve been impressed with the diversity of scope and approaches that museums take to encourage science acquisition. As such, we’ve created a few case studies to highlight these approaches. The Rhode Island Museum of Science and Art (RIMOSA) may not be rural, but the museum serves a large geographic population with modular traveling exhibits focused on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Math) that tour libraries and after-school programs across New England. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Bonnie Epstein, Executive Director and Founder of RIMOSA.

Emma Doctors: What was your motivation for starting RIMOSA?

Bonnie Epstein: I was impressed with the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and was hoping there could be a similar space on the East Coast. The Exploratorium is very different. It’s about physics, it’s designed to be hands-on and de-mystifying. I was working at the aquarium in Boston and thought, “I can do that!” I then left the aquarium to build an Exploratorium here in Rhode Island.

I started to design exhibits that are open-ended, and a catalyst for future learning. I made them with materials people can use at home. By providing this kind of encouragement to do the same at home, I was trying to be a catalyst for life-long experimentation. I also developed outreach programs that help support the traits that both scientists and artists share — to be curious, to observe, and to communicate.

ED: How is your organization unique?

BE: At RIMOSA, we thrive on nurturing creative problem solving. One major problem, with any museum, is that not everyone can come to your physical location. That’s why, despite securing a physical space in mid-2017, we’ve maintained our outreach program to libraries, after-school programs, and anywhere that will have us. We make sure our exhibits are modular, so we can display them on site for a few months, then ship them to a library.

These exhibits model the joy of discovery and the empowerment to observe. Our goal is not the end product, it is all about the process.

ED: How are you reaching your community with the programming that you offer?

BE: We partner with NISE NET (The National Informal STEM Education Network). They’ve collaborated with Arizona State University since 2011 to design kits to help informal science institutions explain a variety of topics in science, from nanoscale to outer space. We have regularly used, redesigned, augmented and worked off aspects of their kits to create content for our activity tables on site or to be the inspiration for one or more of our 60-minute facilitated outreach programs. Sometimes we will take these kits and add other parts to make them more open ended and more closely aligned to our mission. We’re experimenting now with distance learning options with the kits because we have to.

ED: Can you speak more to the STEAM emphasis at RIMOSA?

BE: It was my own personal goal to bring more artists in. They’re observant in different ways than scientists, yet they make excellent scientists. If you emphasize the traits that artists and scientists share and focus on the space in the Venn diagram where they come together, you’ll find they both have to be curious and observant and be able to communicate. For scientists, embracing STEAM is crucial for transforming the way people think about science. Most people are taught science by memorizing a lot of terms. I worry that we are turning people off of STEAM fields due to the way we are teaching it.

ED: Who are your current academic partners and what does that partnership look like?

BE: We’ve worked with a few labs at Brown University. The first is the Brown University Language and Thought Lab. Currently they are exploring how children understand new sentences and thoughts, judge whether they’re true, and whether they reason through to related thoughts. So we provide a space where they can interview older elementary school children. Another lab that we’ve worked with is the Brown University Causality and Mind Lab, run by Dr. David Sobel. His research is on children's causal and scientific reasoning, and social cognitive development. Members of his lab came to us periodically to engage children on the museum floor with research games and puzzles. Outside of research, we’ve also partnered with the Brown University Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. They help educate children about science, neuroscience in particular, and the diversity of individuals who become scientists. They did presentations at our site to encourage kids that there are scientists who do look like them.

We’ve also provided a site for the Brown University Department of Neuroscience to host their NeuroScience Brain Art Fair for Brain Week. Their outreach program hosted the kickoff to Brain Week at our museum. The event starts with the art fair where people translate into art whatever they think of when it comes to the brain. Getting people to internalize an idea and express it is very valuable.

RIMOSA is a place for scientists to work with our patrons for their research, but it’s also a way to reach the public and to emphasize that scientists come in all colors and genders.

We are grateful to Bonnie Epstein for sharing her unique experiences and perspective. We are looking forward to working with her in the future as a Museum Collaborative partner. If your museum, zoo or aquarium is interested in becoming involved with our Museum Collaborative, please email Emma Doctors at doctors@ncse.ngo.

NCSE Program Coordinator Emma Doctors
Short Bio

Emma Doctors is Program Coordinator at NCSE.

doctors@ncse.ngo
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