Marcos at the Montshire

Executive Director Marcos Stafne shares his thoughts, talks, and experiences about the Museum. You can also follow Marcos on Twitter @MarcosStafne.

Learning from Toys: The Inside Scoop on Playing Around

Marcos A. Stafne, PhD

When the Playing Around: Engineering and Toys exhibition opened at the Montshire Museum of Science in September, everyone around the museum started asking the question, “What’s your favorite toy?”

I love toys. I have dinosaur figurines all over my office (and in every room of my house). I have to force myself not to buy Nanoblock sets from our Museum Store because I’m still working on an impossible model of the Himeji Castle that’s sitting on my dining room table (there are soooo many pieces). 

So, what was my favorite toy? As a kid in the 1980s, I spent many waking hours defending the universe with Voltron’s left arm. Voltron, for those who don’t know, is a giant super-hero robot comprised of multi-color robotic lions that come together to defeat aliens. I was lucky to find the Green Lion figure in my local toy store. I can still feel the cold click of the metal legs that would retract to help form Voltron’s left arm. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any of the other lions, so I had to make do with solo adventures battling the more readily available Transformers and GoBots.  

Voltron toy

Transforming robotic toys were a big part of my childhood. Moving all of the articulated pieces sparked my imagination to recreate joints and gears with Legos or Tinker Toys. The hours of imaginative play that I spent formulating missions and developing my own robot-based sagas also flexed my creativity. 

I was never brave enough to take my toys apart, the way some kids did. This type of bold curiosity was the inspiration for Toys: The Inside Story, a section of the Playing Around exhibition. Montshire Director of Exhibits Bob Raiselis (whose favorite toy was a Mr. Machine, featured in the exhibition) worked on the initial design and fabrication. When developing the concept for the exhibition, Raiselis recalls, “The question was posed: what do you really like about toys? We really like taking them apart. The exhibition then became partly focused on the mechanisms you would find inside your toy.” 

TOYS: The Inside Story exhibit area

By examining exactly what makes toys work, visitors are able to explore linkages, pulleys, cams, gears, and circuits. The exhibition offers a hands-on approach to exploring these mechanisms and even creates moments of nostalgia for kids and adults. Raiselis is most fond of the larger-than-life pattern tracer in the exhibition that mimics a classic Etch-A-Sketch. “It's slightly bigger than real, and allows you to poke at something that’s normally tiny and delicate,” says Raiselis. By enlarging this popular toy, visitors can see that the pattern tracer uses fourteen moving pulleys to trace an image.

Two additional areas in Playing Around provide visitors the opportunity to utilize engineering when they create things — Tinker Toys and Big Blue Blocks by Imagination Playground. 

The Big Blue Blocks are a favorite of many of our younger visitors, but how do they connect to engineering? Originally intended as loose pieces for use in outdoor play environments, the blocks—also known as Imagination Playground—have become a staple at many museums, schools, and playgrounds across the country. 

Big Blue Blocks exhibit area

David Krishock (whose favorite toys were Tinker Toys and Erector Sets) is the president of Imagination Playground and spends a lot of time thinking about the value of play. He spoke to me about how he feels the Big Blue Blocks link imagination with engineering. “When Imagination Playground thinks of engineering we tend to define it as designing, building and using structures. When children see the Big Blue Blocks, they are attracted to them like magnets—it’s the size and color. Once children have engaged, they begin stacking, connecting the blocks, and channeling balls through the chutes. As their minds start to comprehend the materials, they begin to dream and decide upon something to build. As they develop the idea of what to build, they create the structure. The blocks enable the children to design what their mind is thinking or dreaming. The block sets have enough shapes and possibilities to get pretty close to their idea.” 

Aside from imaginative play, toys and blocks help kids work on technical skills. Dartmouth College Professor of Engineering Vicki May (whose favorite toys were Lincoln Logs) likes having students tinker and build things in her classes. “I think kids do less and less with their hands. I grew up on a farm, so I had an understanding of how to use tools and how to build things. Now I get a lot of students who don't know the difference between a Phillips and flathead.”

Folks who engage with the Tinker Toys in Playing Around have the opportunity to use their fine motor skills and to puzzle together interesting structures. While Tinker Toys don’t require additional tools to build, they offer a great way for people to start flexing their construction and engineering skills. 

TinkerToy exhibit area

With so many possibilities, where can kids start their lesson on engineering?  May believes that simple is better. “Parents today think their kids have to immediately jump into robotics and electronics,” she explains. “Really, I think popsicle sticks, glue, cardboard, and tape can be a great starting off point.” 

Whether using everyday materials to create a hand-made invention, or playing with a finely crafted toy that utilizes precision engineering, at the Montshire, you’ll never hear us say, “quit playing around.” That’s because the simple act of play can lead to great things, like towering structures, innovative gadgets, and even a better tomorrow. 

The Playing Around: Engineering and Toys exhibition is open at the Montshire Museum of Science through March 25, 2018. 

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Science and you: Developing student science identity through partnerships

Marcos A. Stafne, PhD

Growing up in Florida, hurricane tracking was an important part of my middle school science curriculum. The devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 placed hurricane tracking and weather science at the top of all our lesson plans.

This weather-related urgency led to a tremendous amount of outreach from local television stations, which brought weather people into classrooms to talk about the science of hurricanes. Aside from being awestruck at meeting television personalities, I remember that our weatherman explained that he spent a fair amount of his day actually doing science. He was a meteorologist, after all—recording data and making predictions was a part of his job.  

Years later, I realized that this experience with our local weatherman was the first time that I connected the dots between public communication and science. While I had participated in various science fairs as a kid, the thought that science could be an active and necessary endeavor had never crossed my mind.  

Having specialists in the classroom perfectly exemplifies how a visiting scientist or science program can open up the doors to new ways of thinking about science. It stokes the formation of a student’s scientific identity. Giving students the opportunity to meet, interact, and work with visiting scientists or science educators is important in establishing their world view on what it means to be a scientist and in acknowledging that science is present in everyday life.  

A student’s “scientific identity” can lead to a future career in science or build a foundation of understanding that science is an important part of life. But this lasting interest—whether professional or personal—requires a spark and continued engagement. While many programs seek to develop the initial definition, not everyone will be set up for having a lifelong career in the sciences. That said, having enthusiasm for science, can aid in a well-informed citizenry—one that appreciates the value of scientific process and research. 

In Woodstock, Vermont, middle school science teacher Ryan Becker has worked with various partners throughout the school year to help engage students in developing their interest in science. To start off this school year, he asked students to draw a picture of a scientist. It was no surprise to Becker that many of them drew white men in lab coats with test tubes—a classic stereotype. This set a baseline of understanding from which he could educate students on what scientists actually do. 

One of Becker’s major goals this school year is to promote the notion that “science is done, not memorized.” To aid in this endeavor, he encouraged his students to look up #scientistswhoselfie on Twitter to see various representations of what a scientist looks like and does. Scientists Who Selfie is a project that encourages scientists from around the world to change public perceptions by sharing photos of themselves on Instagram and Twitter actively doing science. In any given search of the hashtag, you might find scientists out in the field conducting research or analyzing data in an office. Generally, the project seeks to demystify the work of scientists and to show that they are pretty much normal people (and, yes, some do wear lab coats and use test tubes). 

Becker says the ultimate goal of this assignment is to lead students toward “that one little moment where they go, ‘huh, a scientist is more diverse than I thought.’ It’s designed to challenge their conception of a scientist, hopefully broadening their concept and internalizing that science is done by a variety of people in a variety of ways. If one of those outcomes is that this variety of people includes them, that would be great too.” 

Woodstock Union High School and Middle School has also hosted real-life scientists thanks to a program called GK-12. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this program pairs scientists with classrooms. Becker’s class worked with a local astrophysicist. The direct benefit to students was that they were able to see that a scientist was a real person who was just like everybody else. 

“Anytime you can broaden science experience for students, the greater the likelihood that they might find a place in science where they might be a good fit,” Becker explains. “I'm trying to move the needle for those who are unsure about science, to see if they even like it. It's amazing seeing how someone from the outside changes their perceptions.” 

Educational researchers Jennifer D. Adams and Preeti Gupta think a lot of about how students develop identity around science [1]. Their work involves students who settle in the middle of academic achievement, the ones who could easily lose interest without an additional spark to keep them motivated. They discovered that students can find their voices by working and volunteering in out-of-school settings, such as science museums, that offer specific experience and training. However, this type of experience can be highly self-selective compared to the accessibility of science outreach in schools.  

“Learning in school is a certain kind of feeling, and you need these add-on experiences from community partners that give you that spike for engagement,” says Gupta, who is the Director of Youth Learning and Research at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “When it's done best, it weaves into what you're doing in school and it's not a stand-alone. It kick-starts engagement. We need ways to keep school interesting through experiences like science kits, outreach, visiting scientists, and web conferences.” 

Shawn Gonyaw, Principal of Barnet School, a small rural K-8 school in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, has also seen the advantages of having a partner in the school to help increase science identity. This approach has benefited not only the students, but also Gonyaw himself. Before becoming principal, Gonyaw participated in the Montshire Museum of Science’s School Partnership Initiative which paired him with a museum educator for professional development in science education.

“When I first started working with the Montshire, the museum educator came and helped me embed inquiry into my curriculums, which was something that had not been brought up before in my teacher training.” As he took this knowledge of inquiry-based education into his principal role, he has continued working with the School Partnership Initiative

A unique feature of this Montshire initiative is that it provides a one-on-one resource for teachers in small rural schools who do not have access to additional colleagues or science specialists sometimes found in larger schools. In this instance, the science educator becomes not only a spark for the students, but for the teachers as well. 
“I've taken inquiry-based education into my principal role to help teachers think about different ways of approaching science,” he says. “Most teacher training programs are not dynamic, so we have a lot of teachers coming into the field that only have two courses in science. They're typically not courses that help to teach science, but the content of science. They don't teach the process. If a student starts to think scientifically, the kids will then get into the content. The partnership has changed my own practices, so that I can help others explore new ways of thinking about science.” 

Gonyaw also feels that having outside sources really does help both the students and teachers of Barnet. “We have a number of people who come to visit from different science organizations: the Fairbanks Museum, nature centers, and the Montshire,” he says. “All of those opportunities help the kids see that science is a real-world application.”  

At the Montshire, I’ve been able to see how these types of engagements manifest in the broadening of student’s scientific identity. For example, our relationship with one of our school partners culminated with a showcase of their work at the Museum — a lesson called Machine Madness. Through this program, students made complicated, themed contraptions that moved a ball from one place to another. This required them to collaborate in order to develop their own work, but also called for numerous groups to work together to shift the ball from one end of the room to the other. 

Student Machine Madness project

When students engage with Montshire educators who are not their teachers, it shows that they have yet another adult model/mentor in their lives who illustrates why their creative spark is important. We’re using that spark to engage with science, to help students realize what they can do. It’s one way of forming a positive science self-identity—and is definitely worth a #scienceselfie. 

[1] Adams, Jennifer D. & Gupta, Preeti. 2013. “I Learn More Here Than I Do in School. Honestly, I Wouldn’t Lie about That”: Creating a Space for Agency and Identity around Science, International Journal of Critical Pedagogy , vol. 4. no.2, pp. 87-104.

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The Importance of Scientific Literacy

On April 22, 2017 the Montshire Museum of Science joined hundreds of science organizations across the world to advocate for science. 1470 people visited the museum on this day to show their support for science research, science education, and science literacy.  

Marcos Stafne making a presentationThe Montshire was founded over 41 years ago by dedicated community members that wanted the Upper Valley and the great States of Vermont and New Hampshire to have a hub for science learning. What has made the Montshire successful in this quest is our promise to engage people of all ages in the joy of science. The spirit of our work hasn't much changed, but how we galvanize science literacy in our community evolves with our changing times. 

“Science literacy” has been defined many different ways over the past fifty years. What it means to be scientifically literate often depends on context. 

Let’s start with the term, “literacy.” 

When we hear the word “literacy” our minds can jump to a base definition—of being able to read and write. But the meaning of literacy goes much further: While I can easily read and write in the English language, I have a rudimentary understanding of Italian. I can read and feasibly spell out Italian words. The letters are similar and I can phonetically sound out the words on the page—but I don’t necessarily comprehend, use, or do…Italian. Knowing Italian, in the truest sense, means that I’m able to effectively understand, communicate, and use that language to actively participate in a society that only speaks Italian. 

So, what does science literacy mean? 

One clear definition comes from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. They describe science literacy as the “ability to engage with science-related issues” and undertake “reasoned discourse about science and technology.” The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine further clarifies that its’ not just about ‘knowing more’ but that the outcome of science literacy is “defined by what an individual might be able to do.” [1]

So, being a scientifically literate person means both knowing and doing science. 

Inside each of us is a scientist. Humans are naturally curious and we experiment on a daily basis. We have the ability to further that experimentation by knowing what came before us, and follow along in the footsteps of those who forged the original path. Once we’re on that path though, if we have the right tools, we can blaze new and different trails that take us to new places. 

It’s easy to think that we get all of the tools we need to be a scientifically literate person in school, but we’re in school for far less time than we are in life—and we’re in science class for just a small percentage of the time we’re in school. The whole world is a laboratory if you know how to open the door, however, sometimes that door needs framing, and that’s where places like the Montshire fit in. 

As a museum of science, our chief aim is to awaken and encourage a lifelong interest in science, and we do this by continuously putting together new programming and exhibitions that get people excited or reengaged in science and the world around them. We’re unique in that we have those types of experiences on the inside of a building, but we also have 100 acres and the Connecticut River next to us. We also have highways that can take our programming to schools and communities across Vermont and New Hampshire to help spark the joy of science in schools that might need some help. The types of activities that we engage in allow for the practice of science skills out in the world. We’re a laboratory for the laboratory of life. And while we love it when people come back to us and say that they work in an actual laboratory after being inspired from an experience at the Montshire, we also love it when we hear that someone has become a cellist because they experimented with vibrations and strings in one of our exhibits. 

The world cares about scientifically literate people. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the importance of science literacy may be viewed through economic, personal, democratic, and cultural lenses.  Science literacy is important on an economic level—we need people to do jobs that involve science and engineering. It’s important on a personal level—we need to understand how our world works to just make it through life. It’s important on a democratic level—we need to know how decisions about the environment our elected officials make will affect our life. And lastly science literacy is important on a cultural level—it’s what makes us a fully educated and well-rounded human being. 

It is always a Day for Science at the Montshire, because it is always a day for science for us as human beings. As an institution, the Montshire relies and the research, expertise, and support from great national organizations like the National Science Foundation, NASA, NOA, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the US State Department, the National Endowment for Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. These organizations support the people and research that helps us think about the world in new ways, so that we can continue to be the hub that brings together our community to fully know and do science. It’s important that you can understand, use and do science because it’s important that you have the access to participate fully in society. 


[1] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2016). Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/23595.

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What are your Desert Island Discs?

If you were stranded on a desert island, what eight albums would you want to have with you? This is a question that has been asked by BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs since 1947. Every participant has a different group of albums that are relevant to them and speak to memories that surround their experience with particular music. Music and memory are incredibly connected—it’s an experience that many of us share, but is unique to each individual.

Erica MyersErica Myers, the Life Enrichment and Memory Care Director for Kendal at Hanover, thinks about music and memory a lot. Erica leads the Whittier unit at Kendal in Hanover, New Hampshire—a specific area devoted to residents with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. The residents in Whittier participate in a program called Music & Memory which utilizes iPods filled with a person’s favorite music as a therapeutic tool to help them connect to their world. The program relies on the understanding that the music of our youth is deeply rooted in our brain. 

Erica has become a music sleuth for many of the residents. While some family members have a clear understanding of what music their relatives listened to, others have no clue—can you name your mom’s favorite songs from high school? If a family member can’t provide a playlist, she deduces the resident’s musical tastes by taking the person’s age and where they grew up into account. Each resident receives a customized playlist loaded on to a simple iPod. If you give a resident the wrong iPod, it can cause a great deal of agitation. While listening to your own music can be therapeutic, listening to music that is not "your" music can be a painful experience. 

ipod with headphones

This made me think about what would be on my iPod in the future. I've never been able to concisely answer the Desert Island Discs challenge. My musical awareness developed in the 1980’s and 90’s in Florida. Growing up with radio, the sounds of burgeoning hip hop and freestyle are ingrained in my head. I wish I could say that Bach and Mozart are my go-to music, but songs like All Cried Out, Ice Ice Baby, and Bust a Move are what instantly bring a smile to my face. When I think of the music of my childhood, Madonna and Prince come to mind as my music. If someone handed me an iPod with opera, unfortunately, it would cause me great discomfort (and believe me, I’ve tried to like opera).

Why are these songs (that I find mildly embarrassing) stuck in my brain? The interrelation of music and the brain was a constant question that came up while we were planning the Making Music exhibition at the Montshire. In our initial meetings, exhibit developers and specialists were curious about the connections between the two. Books like Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks have helped to proliferate interest in this subject, as have commercial enterprises like the Baby Einstein albums. 

The upcoming Making Music +Talks series beginning March 7, focuses on the connections between music and our brain, and each +Talk features experts in our community.

On March 7, Dr. Michael Casey will explore the interrelation of music, the brain, and society with the program Music and the Brain. Dr. George Christian Jernsted will discuss how different senses interpret music with a program entitled Experiencing Music with Our Whole Brain on March 14. On March 21, Eric Myers will introduce the film Alive Inside, a documentary about the Music & Memory program. And finally, Beau Sievers will discuss how music “moves” us with Expressing Emotion in Music and Movement on March 28. 

Each Making Music +Talk takes place on a Tuesday at 6:30pm in the Montshire’s Porter Community Room. The programs are free and open to the public, and also include a facilitated question and answer session. The +Talks are a great way to learn more about how our brains process music, how we use all of our senses to explore music, how music affects our brain to create memories for a lifetime, and why music creates an emotional response. 

I look forward to seeing you at the talks, and I promise not to play you any of my music too loudly—though I maintain that Young MC is one of the finest musicians of all time!


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What’s Going On In This Picture?

An entire galaxy exists in a main stairwell of the Montshire. Greeting hundreds of visitors every day, Galaxy M82, or the “Cigar Galaxy,” is a large-scale print of an image taken in 2006 by the Hubble Space Telescope. The Montshire received the image from NASA to celebrate an anniversary of the telescope, and it’s been inspiring visitors for the past ten years. 

M82 Galaxy

I hear rumors that I’m called the “walker” at the Montshire. It’s true—I tend to “walk” the gallery floors and grounds countless times a day. It’s my duty to make sure we are providing Museum visitors engaging and awesome science activities and experiences in a safe environment. Also, I need walking time to think about things. As I travel up and down the floors of the Museum, I pass Galaxy M82 at least six times a day. Lately, it’s become a work that I spend a few moments with every day and practice a system developed by Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). This observational method is composed of three simple questions: 

What’s going on with this picture? 
What do you see that makes you say that? 
What more can we find? 

The questions are simple, but the more you press into them, the more you start to uncover. The world is a distracting place, and we often tune out most of what is in our visual field. We have an enormous amount of information coming at us at all times—so we force ourselves to have a narrow focus to perform daily activities. At the Montshire, we try to make concepts clear and easy to perceive in the galleries, but even our environment can be over-stimulating. It’s hard to notice Galaxy M82 when the honeybees are right around the corner! However, if you stop and notice, and ask yourself the three questions, you might be surprised by what you find. 

When I asked myself these questions with Galaxy M82, my answers surprised me:
What’s going on with this picture? I’m totally overwhelmed by the image. I don’t know where to look. What did I see that made me say that? Well, it’s a rather large image, much bigger than a photograph I can hold in my hand. It’s hard to focus my eyes on one particular aspect of the image, and there are bright white stars that seem to dominate areas of the print. What more can I find? When I scan my eyes to the corners of the picture, I can see other spiral-shaped blobs…those must be other galaxies—oh, the label mentions that there might be more galaxies in the image!

It’s a dynamic conversation to have with myself…all on the steps of the Montshire. You can utilize these questions to achieve a broader set of observations for many aspects of life. Last Saturday, we celebrated our annual Astronomy Day at the Museum. For the past few years, members of the Dartmouth Department of Physics and Astronomy have joined the Museum in sharing the joy of scientific discovery by leading activities throughout the day. The graduate students and post-docs that share their expertise also convey their passion for learning and searching for answers. As I took a step back to observe the audience interacting with the astronomers, I asked myself the three questions developed by VTS and noticed something really great: 

What’s going on with this picture? I see people of all ages getting excited about space and wanting to share that excitement with each other. What did I see that made me say that? Questions are coming from both adults and children, and the astronomers are valuing each question, layering in new information about the topic of space for a curious audience. What more can I find? It’s not just the same group of five or six families going to every activity throughout the day. There are nearly 800 people who have come to celebrate astronomy, and more…their love of science. 

Astronomer at MontshireI know that our community is curious and hungry for science experiences. We want to know how our world works, and further, what lies beyond or within. The tools of scientific discovery help us explore our natural curiosity and make sense of our daily experiences. 

To cap off my own post-Astronomy Day celebration, I went to see the movie Hidden Figures at the Nugget Theater in Hanover. The Nugget (which is over 100 years old) only has four screening rooms, and often you can show up a few minutes before a film and find plenty of seating. I was pleasantly surprised to find the lobby of the Nugget packed. The lobby was buzzing with people waiting to see the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African-American women who worked at NASA during a pivotal time in the United States’ space program. I get excited when anyone wants to see a movie about space, science, or science fiction, because movies often spark people to get more interested in science (talk to 13-year-old Marcos after he saw Jurassic Park). 

Hidden Figures weaves in personal narratives, the fight for civil rights, mathematics, and engineering into a compelling drama that reminds us that we have the capacity to do great things in our quest for scientific discovery—access to achievement shouldn’t be filtered through the color of our skin or our religion. 

As I saw the audience clap and cheer through various scenes in the movie, I asked: What’s going on in this picture? I see an audience engaged with the story of perseverance and grit in the face of adversity. What did I see that made me say that? The audience was buzzing with heightened anticipation. They’re cheering—especially when Katherine Johnson solves mathematical equations with grace under pressure. What more can I find? Well, I know that I live in a community that values questions and debates, and works hard to stand up for people’s rights. These values take a lot of time to develop, and are critical for future scientists working together to make our world a better place. 

Here’s another question that I’ve been asking myself lately: 

What do I hope to find? 

I hope that we can all be in this together for our future. Science and facts matter greatly to having an informed and curious citizenry. I hope that people can use these three questions: What’s going on in this picture? What did I see that made me say that? What more can I find?…to question, self-reflect, research, and question again. It’s the self-reflection part that can be the hardest to do, but it’s so necessary to moving us forward, together. 

Hubble Photo Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA). Acknowledgment: J. Gallagher (University of Wisconsin), M. Mountain (STScI) and P. Puxley (NSF).

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