Marcos at the Montshire
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.
The 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.” 
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.
 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2016). Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/23595.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
I 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).
Warm Welcome: Making the Montshire Accessible for Families
So many amazing things happened in 2016 at the Montshire. We developed The Tinkering Loft and Making Music exhibitions, installed Ripple Effect by artist Dan Snow, celebrated our 40th Anniversary, worked with 40 schools to spark tinkering programs, and developed a new strategic plan. This was a year in which we talked to a lot of people about what was happening on our 100 acres and beyond—and listened to people tell us how the Montshire is important to them.
So many people have incredible connections to the Montshire, but two conversations I had this year have really stuck with me.
During my research for our strategic plan, I interviewed many people including family members who participate in our Warm Welcome program. This program provides deeply reduced admission or membership fees to families with economic disadvantages. One mother from the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont explained that while she would always make sure her kids could visit the Museum once a year, her Warm Welcome membership enabled her family to visit at least once a month—making the Montshire central to the educational development of her kids.
My second memorable conversation was with a friend who is a single mom. When discussing the economic issues that are facing many single parents in the Upper Valley, she explained that when you have a membership at the Montshire, you know that you always have a place to go that is good for your family.
These two statements mean so much to me as a person who has devoted his life to working in museums. Visiting our local science center as a kid is one of my favorite memories. Looking back, I know that these frequent trips established my passion for curiosity and discovery. I also learned about dinosaurs, sound waves, space, snakes, bubbles, electricity, more about dinosaurs, weather, sound, and the human body—all by following my own interests in a free-choice, hands-on learning environment. Whatever I wanted to discover—there it was—and I endlessly talked about whatever I experienced with my family.
Having a place in our community where families can grow together is vitally important. Programs like Warm Welcome help to ensure that people of all socioeconomic levels can practice the critical thinking skills that scientific inquiry provides. Last year, more than 1,200 families utilized Warm Welcome memberships (25% of our total membership base) and we welcomed more than 21,000 visitors to the Museum through the program overall.
The Warm Welcome program would not be possible without the generous support of our community. I want to personally thank everyone who has supported this and other programs at the Museum. Having the Montshire become a routine in people’s lives means that science is active and present in their minds. We hope that in 2017 we’ll see an increase in the utilization of this amazing program, and that the discoveries found at the Montshire will be shared at dining room tables and car rides home for years to come.
One of the major projects Montshire has been working on over the past year is a strategic plan to guide our next four years. This plan involved a tremendous amount of community-based research that involved many of our visitors, members, and supporters—so thank you to those who participated. Your feedback was incredibly helpful in our thinking about what comes next for the Montshire. In March 2016 the board met to discuss the research and formulated four goals that compose a framework for our strategic vision. The Montshire’s board of trustees met in September 2016 and approved the following strategic vision, goals, and plan.
Our vision is to engage people of all ages in experiencing the joy of science by maximizing opportunities for discovery for our primary and emerging audiences and elevating our outdoor experiences. To make this possible, we will need to strengthen our core base of operations and tell our story in new and exciting ways.
As we Maximize Opportunities for Discovery, we’re looking to focus on our core audience of families with children ages 8 and younger and develop new opportunities for families with children ages 9-14. We want to provide fresh experiences including new programs and rotating exhibits while maintaining our PreK-8th grade school services and programming for teens and adults.
Elevating Our Outdoor Experience requires us to map out a high-level master plan for our 100-acre landscape and build a network of community partners to collaborate on outdoor maintenance, management, and new educational programming.
Internally, we want to Strengthen Our Core by designing and implementing a rolling, multi-year business plan that strengthens internal operations. We also want to develop and execute an improvement plan for amenities, infrastructure, staff capacity, funding, and facilities.
To Tell Our Story in a more clear and compelling way, we want to hone our brand identity and communications strategies, as well as deepen our community, regional, and national profile.
We want to ensure that we continue building on our current level of success, remain relevant and responsive to our community, and pave the way for the Montshire’s future. We’ve been here for 40 years, and through the next four years we will develop and galvanize our operations to best serve our community for the next 40.
If you have questions, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.