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.

Let’s Get Our Imaginations Brewing with Discovery Ale

April, 2016

I learned how to make beer in college.

Every college has that unbelievably hard-to-get-into class. For my school, it was a science course called, “Plants and Humanity.” While the course covered all of the botany basics, we also spent a fair amount of time learning to make wine and beer. Fortunately, I learned a lot about the cultural history and chemistry of making an incredibly popular beverage. Unfortunately, my laboratory beer tasted like a mix of PBR and sewer water.

I’ve never been a big beer drinker, but when I moved up to Upper Valley from Brooklyn a year ago, I had to re-think my take on beer. While Brooklyn Brew might be pervasive in many refrigerators across the country, Vermont and New Hampshire beers have crept their way into corner markets all over Brooklyn. 

Making the finely crafted beer found in our bi-state region requires a tremendous amount of scientific discovery, so when the Brewery at the Norwich Inn heard we were celebrating our fortieth anniversary, they ‘hop’ed on the idea of brewing a beer to honor the Montshire. 

The Brewery at the Norwich Inn is home to Jasper Murdock Ales (named for the Norwich Inn’s first owner from 1797). Located only a few miles from the Museum, the Norwich Inn has been a great community collaborator with the Montshire, including serving Jasper Murdock Ales and wine at our Unleashed evenings for adults. 

Brew Master Jeremy Hebert researched and developed a special brew in celebration of the Museum’s 40th. He describes our beer as “a moderate strength American pale ale, light in color, and brewed from a single variety of hops…with feature aromas that suggest a range of tropical fruits, pears, cherries and watermelon.” 

The Norwich Inn hosted an online competition for community members to help name the beer. Sixty names were submitted. Three finalists were selected and Discovery Ale was the clear winner.

Marketing and Communications Director Beth Krusi and I had the opportunity to watch Jeremy work on the new Montshire Discovery Ale. We were invited to the brewery and observed the “hands-on” science that happens during the first phase of brewing. Marcos Stafne stirring beer mash

Jeremy arrived at 6:30 in the morning to mill grains through a special grinder that he’s constructed (It reminded me of a great tinkering project). The grains are then bagged and stored within quick reach. When we arrived at 7 a.m. to document the process, Jeremy began filling a 150-gallon, double-walled, stainless steel kettle with water that had to be between 140 and 170º. Once the kettle was full, he began adding in bags of malted barley and hops while we all took turns stirring the mash. The brewing process continued after we left, and will be fermenting for the next several weeks.

While Jeremy does all of this on his own, it was a lot of fun to have a hand (or at least a stirrer) in the process of bringing Discovery Ale to the Upper Valley. The first batch will be bottled and available at the Fiddlehead Fling, the Montshire’s annual auction and fundraiser. You’ll be able to celebrate the Montshire with Discovery Ale at Jasper Murdock’s Alehouse at the Norwich Inn shortly after the Auction. 

It’s been an amazing experience collaborating with a great community partner in Norwich, and we hope that some great conversations about science happen at a table near you soon. 

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Talking about the +Talks at the Montshire

March, 2016

Each science exhibition has a story behind its creation, and some exhibitions even use stories to communicate important concepts and themes. The story behind Human Plus: Real Lives + Real Engineering is near to my heart, because it involves personal connections to the individuals who offered advice and helped plan the exhibition.

Human Plus was developed by the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). I worked for NYSCI when this exhibition was being proposed by Eric Siegel (then Museum Director and Chief Content Officer—my big, big boss at the time). Eric’s vision was to develop an exhibition about how adaptive technology helps advance human ability—especially for those who have extra challenges. Eric’s daughter, Lilith Sigel uses a walker to get around. He often expressed discontent over how little the technology that Lili used has changed over the past 20 years—and wouldn’t it be great if a user of this type of technology could have input into the design process. 

Here’s Eric talking about Human Plus

While I was at NYSCI, Lili interned in my department, and it taught me a great deal about the challenges faced by people with physical disabilities. If I want to walk from one end of the Museum to another, I don’t even think about how long it will take me… but for people who need to use canes, walkers, or wheel chairs, extra thought must be made to consider obstacles (like stairs or exhibits that are too close together), and the amount of physical endurance that needs to be expended to move from one place to another. 

Many years later, with the help of an incredible team of advisors (including Lili), the Human Plus exhibition was completed and is now featured at the Montshire. The personal stories help connect visitors to the experiences of both designers and technology users. 

These stories are present in the Upper Valley as well, and it’s our great pleasure to present +Talks, a series of discussions that celebrates the central themes within the exhibition. +Talks take place at the Museum on the first four Tuesdays in March, and feature specialists in human evolution, implant technology, adaptive technologies in sports, and community well being. The talks begin at 6:30 p.m. and are free and open to the community. 

The big questions we’re going to cover are: What happens when our bodies are injured, born with a challenge, or just wear out? What happens when you start adding technology to the outside and inside of our body? How do you adapt a single activity for multiple people with disabilities? How do we support a community with differences? 

Each +Talk will involve a short introduction by me to connect the evening’s theme to the Human Plus exhibition. Our featured speaker will present for ten to fifteen minutes, and I’ll ask a few questions to get our minds working.  We’ll then open the conversation up to the audience. 

In our first program, The Evolution of Walking: The Perils of Bipedalism, Dr. Jeremy DeSilva will discuss our evolutionary history and explain how the engineering of our body sometimes works against us—especially when it comes to our feet. I first met Jeremy when he came for a visit to discus his work in paleoanthropology—he’s responsible for bringing famed paleoanthropologist Lee Berger and our Homo naledi casts to the Museum last fall. Jeremy studies prehistoric locomotion—specifically feet and ankles. He sparked me to think about the parts of our body that might be overly complicated—remnants of our prehistoric evolution. For example, the human foot has 26 bones. If we need to replace a human foot, we don’t necessarily make an exact replica, because there are more efficient ways to accomplish walking. 

I was first introduced to Dr. Michael Mayer during a Thayer Engineering Open House last spring at the Dartmouth Biomedical Engineering Center when he was demonstrating the evolution of hip implants. This technology requires a huge amount of collaboration between various fields of science (think MD’s, engineers, materials scientists, chemists, and more). His talk, Engineering on the Inside: Innovations in Implants will review how implants have changed over the years.

One of the featured exhibits in the Human Plus exhibition is an interactive mono ski experience. The mono ski is only one tool that allows Managing Director Maggie Burke of Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sport to provide thrilling outdoor adventures for people of all abilities. In her talk, Sports for Every Body, Maggie will discuss how her organization utilizes a range of technology to empower athletes with disabilities to have access to sports and recreational activities. She’ll also demonstrate a range of equipment.

A few months ago, when I was discussing Human Plus with our Board Chair, Philip McCaull, he suggested that I watch the documentary the Crash Reel featuring the story of champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce. An Upper Valley native, Kevin Pearce experienced a traumatic brain injury, and the documentary followed his recuperation. I was impressed at how involved his family and friends were in creating a support network for his recovery. Kevin and his brother Adam founded the Love Your Brain Foundation, an organization that helps all people understand what it means to truly love their brain. Adam’s program, Balancing Brains, Bodies and the Mind, will showcase how a caring community can improve mind-body connections to help people with brain injuries improve their quality of life. Check out this interview with Kevin and Adam Pearce from Vermont Public Radio’s Vermont Edition. 

I’m excited to bring these programs to the Montshire and hope to see many of you over the next few Tuesdays. If you have questions for any of our speakers you can tweet them to me at @marcosstafne #PlusTalks or email me at marcos.stafne@montshire.org. 

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How Does Technology Improve our Lives?

Every morning when I wake up, I put my glasses on to start my day. Without my glasses, I wouldn’t be able to see what time it is, read signs, recognize faces from a distance, or even drive. My black-framed spectacles are more than a fashion accessory; they are a technology or tool that helps me to live my life in the fullest way possible—but I don’t always think of my glasses as a form of technology, they’re just…well...my glasses. I rarely think about them…until I can’t find them.

Marcos Stafne at Human Plus exhibitionWhile technology plays an integral role in our daily lives, it often goes unnoticed. Stop for a second and think about this: If you’re reading this now, you’re using technology.

Ask yourself: What kind of technology am I using to read this? Did I have this device 5 years ago? 15 years ago? 30 years ago? How is technology changing my ability to read this article?

Are you holding these words in your hand? Is the computerized device you’re using to read this sitting on your lap or on a table? Are you scrolling through this article using your fingers, or a mouse?

How is your body interacting with the piece of technology you’re using? Are you sitting upright or slouched on your couch?

Humans have constantly been adapting their abilities by creating inventive tools to make our lives easier or better. We don’t always think about technology in our everyday life, but being mindful of our interaction with tech can lead to a deeper appreciation of our own ingenuity. The Montshire is hosting Human Plus: Real Lives + Real Engineering, an exhibition that showcases how technologies are developed to help people accomplish their goals. Developed by the New York Hall of Science and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and funded by the National Science Foundation, visiting this exhibition is a great way to engage with the conversation of engineering and adaptive technology.

Macos Stafne at Human Plus exhibitionThe activities in Human Plus require you to think about the engineering process by asking what people need, imagining possible solutions, creating prototypes, testing with users, and repeating the process. In sum, how do tools help humans, and how do we develop better tools and technologies to extend our abilities? These tools can be as simple as a ramp (one of our favorite simple machines), or as complicated as technologies that allow people to control computers with the simple flick of the eyes.

The stories behind the innovators featured in the Human Plus exhibition are inspiring. From Eric Weihenmayer, an outdoor adventurer who is blind and works with scientists, inventors, and people with disabilities to innovate new technologies to break barriers, to Carrie Krischke, a veteran who works closely with engineers at DEKA Research and Development to help develop new prosthetics, to Elaine Houston, an engineer at the Quality of Life Technology Center who developed a power wheelchair with robotic arms to allow people with severe disabilities more independence, the exhibition showcases the fruitful intersection of passion, engineering, and human ingenuity.

We all use technology to make our lives better to varying degrees. As you visit the Montshire in the coming months and experience the Human Plus exhibition, take a moment to think about how you interact with technology. Are there aspects of our lives that could be improved through a new innovation in tech? We hope that this exhibition sparks your curiosity and conversations, and get’s you working towards the next great breakthrough.  

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Montshire Turns 40—A look at our founding

As we’ve been preparing for a celebration of the Montshire’s 40th anniversary, I’ve been digging deep into old scrapbooks to gain a better understanding of our founding. I’m a nut for learning about the history of museums, so spending hours deep in the stacks of the Montshire’s staff library has been a complete joy—especially when you find that one right scrapbook which helps you put it all together. High up on a shelf (it helps to be 6’3”), I found a treasure trove of old documents and photos that dated back to 1969—a time when “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, “Everyday People”, and “Come Together” were at the top of the music charts.

How did the Upper Valley come to have a science museum that spreads over 100 acres? The establishment of the Montshire speaks volumes about what was going on in the sciences in the late 60’s and early 70’s and the ingenuity of the surrounding community to manifest such an endeavor with incredibly limited resources.

Original Montshire floorplan

Many parents and young adults that I meet at the Montshire (those born and raised in the Upper Valley) barely remember a time when the Museum didn’t exist. There’s a great understanding that the Museum has evolved over the years. I’ve heard numerous stories about the old “bowling alley days” when the Museum was located in the former Goflside Bowling Lanes on Lyme Road in Hanover—and I’ve even found a hand drawn floor plan for the original Montshire by A.A. Titcomb.

In a decade’s time, and under the Museum’s second leader, the incomparable David Goudy, the Museum went from a former bowling alley to a purpose built building. For many folks in the Upper Valley, the Museum has constantly been a growing, ever-expanding resource, but the vision of the Montshire started many years before our doors ever opened.

Before there was a Montshire Museum of Science, there was a Dartmouth College Museum with numerous natural history collections located in Wilson Hall on the Dartmouth Campus. The former Museum Director (and founding Montshire Director), Dr. Robert Chaffee, along with other concerned community members, saw a growing need to address contemporary science issues on a local level.

The late 60’s marked a time when our nation was waking up to the harsh realities of industrialization on our planet’s sustainability. One of the treasures that I found in a large scrapbook from our founding contained notes from a meeting in 1969 with concerned community members who thought opening a bi-state regional science center might be a solution. “It won’t be long before the environment in which human beings can exist will be gone” says a quote from a typewritten transcript of the meeting.  “Disappearance and pollution are tied together with a myriad of interlocking connections. No one knows when the connection to man will be reached.” This meeting led to a four year planning process that concluded with a proposal for the museum in 1973. In his original plan, Chaffee set forth an educational agenda to introduce and excite Upper Valley residents about the world around them utilizing real objects from the local region.  

The Museum was officially established in 1974, and within two years an incredibly dedicated team helped to transform the former bowling alley into a science museum. The evening before the Museum opened, Walter Paine, Founding Chairman of the Board of Trustees said:

“The basic thrust of this museum is simple and direct. Stimulate curiosity about the world around us and you create the desire for knowledge. Satisfy this desire and you begin to build common understanding and that sense of having a personal stake, which moves people to respect and protect their natural heritage.”

The first year of the Montshire was a complete success. The Museum served over 11,000 people and paved the way for the next 40 years. In a note in the 1977 Montshire Newsletter (celebrating the Montshire’s first birthday), Chaffee reflected:

“We never thought we would be able to have the Museum in shape for opening day. The Trustees were working day and night painting the walls and ceiling, and exhibits. If it hadn’t been for the help of several volunteers and Museum staff members, the only exhibit visitors to the Museum on opening day would have seen, would be me sitting on a pyramid of cardboard boxes.”

The founders of the Museum cared about our community and were passionate about cultivating a sense of curiosity that would lead to making our world a better place. This vision has been stewarded and expanded throughout the past four decades and continues to grow. We’re still thinking about how to impact the world, and we know that awakening the minds of visitors, encouraging a lifelong interest in science, and developing critical thinking skills are steps on the path to a brighter tomorrow.

Throughout this year, we’ll be celebrating our past by looking towards the future. Our 40th year will feature four exciting exhibitions that engage minds in engineering, tinkering, dinosaurs, music, and more, as well as two exciting community ventures that will be revealed during our celebration on January 10, 2016.

We’re also looking forward by working on a new strategic planning process that takes us into 2020. A survey to gather community input, and listening sessions with various community stakeholders will keep our community at the core as we start to think about next 40 years.

I’ve “heard it through the grapevine” that a community of “everyday people” “came together” to create a Museum that encourages people of all ages to experience the joy of science. I am honored to be part of such an incredible institution and I hope you will join me in celebrating Montshire's 40th year.

 

Learn more about our Community Celebration on January 10, 2016
Participate in our community survey

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Homo naledi comes to the Upper Valley

Dr. Lee Berger with Museum visitors

Through a series of fortuitous events, the Montshire was one of the first U.S. institutions to receive casts of a skull, hand, and foot of the newly discovered human ancestor, Homo naledi. Paleoanthropologist Dr. Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa shared the excitement of this scientific achievement with our Museum community through a special presentation of the casts and a meet-and-greet with the scientists who helped bring this discovery to light. 

I’m happy to report that the specimens are now on view in our second floor gallery—with great thanks to our nimble Montshire team, which had two days to prepare this fantastic display. We thought it only right to share our new gift with the public as soon as possible. In fact, Berger and team have made it clear that the Homo naledi discovery and research have resulted from a team effort, made possible by broadly sharing the findings—you can even print copies of Homo naledi specimens using data posted on MorphoSource and a 3D printer.

There are many resources available to learn more about how Homo naledi came to light. This discovery serves as a good reminder that science can be an adventure. As with any new scientific discovery, it makes us stop and think and question. 

Science is an ADVENTURE. When Berger entered the Museum November 17, I heard squeals of delight coming from several young visitors who had left school early to meet him. In their eyes, this paleoanthropologist was a true celebrity. Berger was surprised that so many middle school students had prepared really challenging questions. Even more surprising were some of our youngest visitors, who drew pictures of Homo naledi, and asked questions about hominid tool use. My personal observation was that these students were inspired by the adventurous story of the discovery, including dangerous cave exploration under the Earth’s surface. When Berger spoke, he emphasized that the future of scientific discovery rests in the hands of our kids. If we can get kids excited about science at an early age, who knows where their interest will take them. The six female anthropologists/spelunkers who tirelessly moved bones up a dangerous passageway volunteered for the work in the name of scientific discovery. Berger revealed that the folks who needed to do this work required a specific height and physical build, and the six women who were chosen for the work weren’t chosen because they were women, but because they were the best people for the job. They took big risks to achieve incredible scientific rewards—and that type of adventurous spirit is what’s needed to help move our world forward in a positive direction. 

Scientific discoveries make us THINK deeply. At the Montshire, we believe that the act of discovery is “doing science” through hands-on experimentation and inquiry. Berger and team actively dug, climbed, analyzed, experimented, and tested the skeletal remains that were found in a seemingly inaccessible cave. Once the findings were released, the adventure continued. Now that we know these beings existed, what does that mean about the history of our planet? And what does that mean for us today?  Young visitors viewing fossil casts

Thinking about prehistoric times flexes the muscles of our imagination. How would Homo naledi have existed in a tough geological environment? What did they eat? Did Homo naledi have rituals? Did they care for their dead? Through further active research, scientists hopefully will unveil some of these mysteries, but the thinking part—the postulation of our past—helps us in the present to be open to questions about the future: How would life develop on other planets? How would we survive on a planet with few resources? If an alien being were to observe human cultures, would those cultures define us as a complex organism in the vast realm of space? These are all big questions that require thought, imagination, and the rigor of scientific processes to help us keep pushing for answers. 

Serious science can be fun. Popular media can influence our image of what it means to be a scientist. From coat-wearing investigators on CSI, to rough-and-tumble, cranky paleontologists in Jurassic World, to the quirky physicists on Big Bang Theory—there are a lot of stereotypes of what it means to be a scientist, and they can lead to a less-than-ideal perception of the personalities of scientists. I’m a firm believer that we’re all everyday scientists, and those who choose science as a career—guess what—they’re pretty much everyday people too.  

On the morning of our Homo naledi event, I joined Lee Berger for breakfast at a local restaurant. Before our eggs were served, Berger was so excited to show me the casts that he brought from South Africa, that he pulled them out of his bag and put the naledi skull on our table. There was serious geek-out delight as we dined with casts of skeletal remnants scattered about the table (I should mention that these very clean casts are fairly sturdy—and a cast is a replica, not an actual skeleton). The excitement was palpable, silly, and fun. The disequilibrium of having these casts out on a breakfast table conjured many great questions, and helped Berger tell his tales of discovery in a much more casual, approachable way.

Every experience at the Montshire provides visitors the opportunity to dig deeper into the world around us. Our hands-on exhibits and programs provide a spark of adventure in a safe and friendly atmosphere. Those adventures, large and small, help everyone to think a little more about how we exist in this world—and we can derive great joy from experiencing science. As for me, I am in a unique position to see our community engage with science on a daily basis, and it truly brings me joy. From soap bubbles to aerodynamics to our prehistoric ancestry, our Museum is a laboratory for adventurous discovery, thinking and questioning, and fun. 

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