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MANCHESTER, NH – Like many local leaders faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, SEE Science Center’s Peter Gustafson began to think on the fly when it became apparent in mid-March that a new normal wasn’t just on the horizon, it was here. Now.
“For us it was March 16th,” said the organization’s Deputy Director, who has been at SEE for over 20 years. “We knew right away we had to modify things going forward – and in hurry,” he said. “Our mission is to excite and educate kids about science and we’ve always espoused the hands-on learning experience at SEE. In this instance, with our doors closed, we had to pivot and determine how we could still make an impact.”
Talk to Gustafson – or for that matter anyone associated with SEE – and you will hear frequent use of the phrase “hands-on.” I have been to SEE many times and can personally attest that my children fully enjoyed the immersive programs at SEE. From digging in sand to finding “fossils” to the acclaimed slime workshops to experiencing reduced gravity in SEE’s moonwalk, it was a chance to play and get a glimpse of what it was like to be a scientist, explorer or astronaut. Heck, you could even literally taste the experience by getting some astronaut ice cream in the gift shop.
So how did SEE stay true to its mission in the sudden hands-off world?
The “silver lining” Gustafson said, was that science centers across the Northeast and the U.S. found themselves in the same predicament. “This field is very collaborative,” he said. “We often share best practices, ideas and content. We were all experiencing the virtual world together and while it was scary at times, there was definitely a sense of togetherness in that we were facing a common enemy – in this case, the virus.”
Among the many ways in which SEE changed its operations in the late winter and early spring was to create video content of experiments and virtual tours and post this information on their website and social media. This online presence included posting activities and experiments that families could do at home. SEE also began working to modify its programs to meet the needs of the regional educational community. With a new focus on outreach and virtual experiences, the science center is preparing to deliver quality STEM educational programs to school-age children throughout the fall and plans to deliver more free programs to underserved communities this year than ever before.
For adults, the Center also plans to modify its “Science on Tap” programming to include virtual meetings with on-line Q and A.
Having weathered the spring, SEE began preparing for the summer camp season and launched in-person learning opportunities per state of NH opening guidelines. “As you might imagine, the camps were smaller this summer, we reduced our capacity to meet State guidelines,” Gustafson said. “And we made modifications to protect the health and safety of the kids. Everyone wore masks and stayed socially distanced. The feedback from both campers and parents was incredibly positive.”
Earlier this month the Center took another step forward by opening on weekends to members and then the general public. Available via pre-booked appointments, capacity at the museum was capped at 25 percent. The hands-on exhibits that are still open have the “manipulatives” completely replaced every session says Gustafson. As a further safeguard, the SEE day is broken into sessions with a one hour “deep sanitizing period” between each.
Gustafson freely admits that Center staff – like other museums – “was learning along the way” but strongly feels that the lessons learned, and modifications made will serve SEE well in the future.
“We want to engage as many kids as possible in the love of science. While we could not quite provide the hands-on experience during the lock-down, we were able to reach kids via technology,” he said. “Going forward, this will enable us in the future to interact with students across the state who might live too far away for a bus trip. So that’s a win-win!”
To learn more about SEE, please visit www.seesciencecenter.org.
In our next feature, we will explore how SEE is approaching the upcoming school year and how it is planning to meet the needs of on-site and remote learners.