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.

Our Town: A Hub of Science & Art

With the opening of our new exhibition, The Outside Story, Artwork by Adelaide Tyrol, the Upper Valley is having a fantastic arts moment this season. Just a few nights ago I had the pleasure of seeing Northern Stages’ brilliant production of Our Town in their new home at the Barrette Center for the Arts— a new jewel in the Upper Valley Community. For those not too familiar with Our Town, or who haven't thought about Thorton Wilder's snapshot of small town life since high school, the play takes place in fictional New Hampshire town called Grover’s Corners. In my imagination, Grover’s Corners might lie somewhere over the river between Cornish and Plainfield. 

The female protagonist of the play, Emily Webb, has a rather famous monologue towards the end where she exclaims to the Stage Manager (the narrator of the play), "Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” To which he simply replies, “No. The saints and poets, maybe they do some.”

Now, I’m not saying that our great American playwright got it wrong, but I would argue that he might have added artists and scientists too—their chief business is to realize life, while they live it. 

Before I stepped into the imaginary world of Grover’s Corners that evening, I experienced real-world science and art experiences in Windsor and Lebanon that afternoon. In Windsor, I had the extreme pleasure of supporting our engineering community at the 16th Annual Model Engineering show, hosted by the American Precision Museum. These engineers from all over New England showcased the best of how craftsmanship and artistic ingenuity can communicate the beauty of mechanics. Whether it was Jim Reda, an enthusiast who built a scanner to decode “turn of the century” piano rolls into audible music while building a new music archive, or Don Fitzpatrick who was inspired to build a three pendulum rotary Harmonograph off of some plans found in a novelty book, to the burgeoning Clermont Maker Space working with kids of all ages to tinker and make—science and art were coming alive around every corner. Marcos Stafne drawing a fox

Later that afternoon I traveled to AVA Gallery in Lebanon to study a new exhibition from the Vermont Glass Guild. I’m facilitating a program at AVA on November 5th utilizing an inquiry methodology called Visual Thinking Strategies or VTS. VTS is a system developed by researcher Abigail Housen, in conjunction with Philip Yenawine, the previous director of education for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This viewer-centered approach revolves around three questions that a facilitator continually asks: What’s going on with this picture? What about this picture made you say that? What more can we find? The hard part for the facilitator is that there are no wrong answers—it’s all about the group constructing meaning from a work of art or object and using their language to verbalize what their senses are indicating. 

Places like the Montshire are a fantastic laboratory for exercising this method. What’s going on with this bubble? What about this bubble made me say that? What more can I find? What’s going on with these ants? What about these ants made me say that? What more can I find? The possibilities are endless. 

As I look around the community, I ask the same questions:

What’s going on with this area? I see a group who is engaged and supportive in their cultural resources.

What about this area made me say this? How hard everyone works to make sure that our community truly has the resources it needs. 

What more can I find? Well, this is where you help me. What more is out there that the Montshire can be doing? As we approach our 40th year, a celebration of the joy of science, we’ll continually return to these questions. How is our role changing as we mature as an institution, what more could we be doing, how do we figure this out together?  

Great and tough questions—but questions that artists and scientists (and maybe poets and saints) have been working on for some time. “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” We may not be able to notice everything all the time, but the Montshire is a center that helps people of all ages to develop these skills, and a community hub for us to appreciate together, these precious mysteries of the world.

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A Community of Everyday Scientists: Notes from the 2015 Montshire Corporation meeting

Marcos StafneThis has been a big year for the Montshire. We successfully hosted four exhibits that included owls, ants, caterpillars and prehistoric mammals. We found our way to schools all over the Vermont and New Hampshire, and they found their way to us in record numbers. We renovated the first floor (creating new exhibition space), redeveloped our Bubbles exhibit, built an exhibit about light, and tinkered around with a Tinkering Lab. We completed a major fundraising campaign to enhance our permanent exhibits collection, increased access to low-income community members through our Warm Welcome Program, and hired a new executive director. That’s a busy year. We have big things planned for the year ahead as well, including a super special anniversary. 

On January 10, 1976, the Montshire opened its doors in Hanover, New Hampshire, and the Upper Valley community has never been the same. Thirteen years later we moved across the beautiful Connecticut River to Norwich, Vermont, and have been growing ever since. There are many things that make the Montshire unique, but what has stood out throughout the last 40 years is the joyful experience we bring to science learning and engagement. For our 40th anniversary, we plan to celebrate “The Joy of Science” with a yearlong series of events and activities that acknowledges our past, but more importantly, look toward the future.

What exactly is the joy of science? As I’ve talked to many community members, it’s clear that so many people value the museum as a family destination, a community anchor, and a great learning environment; but when I’ve asked people about their personal interests in science, I’ve gotten some weird stares. “Science…well, I’m not exactly a ‘science person’, I’m more of a culture person, or a history person, or a finance person.” We need all these types of people as part of our museum family, but I’d like for all of you to think about what it means to be a science person…because believe it or not, time and time again, I see random acts of science being demonstrated by everyone—especially when it comes to telling me how to adjust to life in the Upper Valley. 

Here’s a great example: I'm in the market for a new car. As many of you know I've moved up from Brooklyn and currently have a 2007 Jetta. While my car is perfectly adequate for city driving, it has some trouble getting up and down the hills of the Upper Valley. 

As a bit of context, I’ve only owned 4 cars in my life. My first two cars, a 1985 Dodge Daytona and a 1990 Pontiac Firebird, weren’t exactly well-informed decisions. And in Florida, in the 90s (remember I’m from the land of Miami Vice and the Daytona 500), your car needed to just get you places—in style—and I mean a 1990 Black Pontiac Firebird was a ridiculously hot car. My other two cars have been Jettas. These cars are perfectly adequate for New York City. They’re dependable, are good in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and if someone hits you, you don’t really care, because the car’s not that great looking to begin with. 

What I've found amazing is that people have many opinions about what I should drive and are feel free to voice them—even if I haven’t asked. When I've talked to people about getting a new car, the feedback is mixed: 

“You need 4-wheel drive…it doesn't matter if you have 4-wheel or front-wheel, it's all about snow tires…who cares about snow tires, just know that you’re going to get stranded a couple of times a year… …get an SUV, get a station wagon, get a sedan…how far are you driving? Get an electric car, or a hybrid car…have you heard about this thing called Advanced Transit?”

In Vermont and New Hampshire, we have to take our surroundings into consideration. We make daily observations, and evaluate our circumstances to figure out what will work best. We share our ideas, openly and loudly, especially if we think it will help a fellow human being. It’s fun, we like talking about these things, and more importantly, it’s science. I never thought of myself as a "car person" but now I can tell you I've heard and read everything about a Subaru Forrester, Nissan Rogue, Jeep Liberty, Rav4, Honda CRV and more. My next step is to test out all of these cars over and over again and see what works best for my needs, and whether they match my hypothesis.

Everyday scientists are always welcome at the Montshire Museum. In the year ahead, we have some exciting opportunities for you to experience the joy of science. Opening Saturday, October 17, The Outside Story: Artwork by Adelaide Tyrol, captures the essence of observation and communication. Tyrol transforms her observations into images that engage us with a deeper understanding of the world around us. On January 30, Human Plus: Real Lives + Real Engineering exhibition opens, which showcases what happens when engineers and people with physical challenges work together to create solutions that extend human abilities. 

We’re also building on the success of our Tinkering Lab, and in June we’re planning something big. If you’ve had a fun time in our Lab, you’ll have a blast building alongside friends and family in our expanded Tinkering Loft, a much larger space where everyone can design, build, and create with 2500 square feet of hands-on, interactive, challenge-based tinkering activities. 

It’s clear to me that we live in a community of everyday scientists, so please help me in spreading the word, and gathering support for great science education, for everyone, everyday.     

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Experiencing The Joy of Science

A few weeks ago, I went to Florida for a family wedding and got to spend some quality time with my dad.  My father has an interesting background that involves everything from rocket science to jazz-fusion drumming, so our conversations are all over the map. One of the many things we have in common is our interest in science fiction movies, so when he mentioned that he had watched Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar—we had to talk about it.

It seems that people either love or hate the movie Interstellar. It’s a heady space flick in which the future of our species depends on humans moving to another planet or living in space. The lead character is an astronaut/engineer/farmer who strives to unlock the mysteries of space and time, all while navigating his relationship with his daughter. Full disclosure: I loved this movie and my father did not.

For me, the movie fired up all the right neurons to get me thinking about the future of space travel. It was thrilling to see science given so much attention (however questionable it may have been). After watching Interstellar, I dived into Andy Weir’s The Martian, and am just wrapping up Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. Both books are about engineering your way out of tough situations (like the world being destroyed, or being stuck on Mars).

My dad and I talked about these concepts for hours (yes hours) and it was a lot of fun. If I had to label the exact emotion I had during our conversation, it would be “joy.” Our talk reminded me of joyous childhood moments spent experimenting with whisper dishes or looking at optical illusion exhibits at the Orlando Science Center (my hometown science museum). Learning how sound and light can play funny tricks on our realities was a mind-opening experience for me. Exploring a museum with my dad let me know that there’s more to the world than meets our eyes and ears, and we can discover, discuss and debate these things together with friends and family.

I see this type of joyful engagement every day at the Montshire as people of all ages experiment and test out ideas together. The staff at the Museum works hard to provide meaningful experiences for our visitors, be it first-time Museum visitors through our Warm Welcome program or the thousands of kids we reach each year in our School Partnerships.

Your financial support of the Museum helps make sure that even more people can experience the joy of science at the Montshire. We may never know if a future astronaut will walk through our doors… or if a Montshire experience will help him or her reach a new world. 

Note: The annual campaign for The Montshire Fund ends September 30!

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Planet Walk

<>Walking to Pluto has been on my mind for the past few months. It's hard not to think about Pluto...there's been a lot of news about NASA's New Horizons journey that gives us new knowledge about our dwarf planet at the edge of the solar system. The Pluto I think about most lies just 1.5 miles away from the Montshire Museum building. 

The Montshire's Planet Walk provides visitors an opportunity to hike three miles to Pluto and back. Starting with the Sun located right behind the Museum building in David Goudy Science Park, you can travel from planet to planet experiencing the scale of distance between each planet. Neptune and Pluto take a long time to get to (depending on how fast you can walk), and you encounter a lot of fun surprises and beautiful landscapes along the way. After you pass Saturn, the Planet Walk joins the public Hazen trail where you'll find Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.

I never thought of myself as a hiker, but since my move to the Upper Valley, I've found hiking to be one of my new favorite experiences. Growing up in Florida, hiking was a dangerous sport, which generally required running from venomous snakes and the occasional alligator. While the pesky tick does wreak havoc in the Upper Valley (and everyone should take ticks seriously), hiking is much more enjoyable in varied terrain and on shaded paths. As part of my new relationship with the 100 acres of the Museum, I walk on all of our trails weekly. Sometimes walks are out of necessity—checking trails and outdoor exhibits to make sure they are clean and safe. Other times, the walks are for physical and mental well-being. Research shows that walking at least a half hour per day has myriad benefits, and I can't think of a better way to achieve those precious steps than walking on Montshire trails.

While walking some parts of our trails can be a quick trip (the Woodland Garden only takes me about 7 minutes to pass through—but I have long legs), walking all the way to Pluto was a little more commitment than I could handle during the middle of a workday. Like many explorers before me, I decided to chart a path from home through the Planets.

I live near the entrance of the Hazen Trail, so on a beautiful Saturday morning in July, I decided to take on the role of explorer. I found a simple parking area in Wilder and made my way through the beginning of the Hazen Trail. The Montshire’s Planet Walk joins the public Hazen trail at Pluto, and I was incredibly excited to see this rarely visited Montshire exhibit. I took a few deep breathes, noticed my surroundings, inspected Pluto for any damage, took a photo (just like the New Horizons journey) and then continued on to Neptune. The walk was surprisingly long and it gave me a sense of the tremendous distance between planets—there's a reason it took NASA so long to travel through the far reaches of our solar system. The environment around the Neptune exhibit was incredibly different from what I observed at Pluto. One by one, I found each of the planets (it gets really easy after Saturn). While on the Planet Walk, I observed the natural environment, thought about space and time, and treated my body to a healthy walk—a perfect Montshire trifecta.

When I arrived at the 'Sun', I checked in at the admissions desk (as all visitors must!) and decided to have lunch at The Summer Café in the Hughes Pavilion (Try the New Hampshire sandwich, it's my favorite).Marcos Stafne and the Montshire Planet Walk

After checking out the Tinkering Lab, I headed back to my starting point. To my surprise I passed a father and his teenage son on the way back from their own journey to Pluto. We exchanged a few interplanetary jokes and then went on our way. It made my heart smile to see how our trails could be a platform for some father–son bonding time out in nature...and in space.

Now is the perfect time to visit our trails. They're free with admission, and they make for a great family adventure. I took a photo of myself at each planet, and I'd love to see yours! You can email them to me at Marcos.Stafne@montshire.org, or tag me on Twitter @marcosstane.

Want to go for a walk on our trails with me? I'm always open for a trail companion, just send me a note and we'll find some time.

Corum, J. (July 25, 2015), New horizons probe glimpses Pluto's dark side. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/15/science/space/new-horizons-pluto-flyby-photos.htm

Reynolds, J. (July 22, 2015). How walking in nature changes the brain. New York Times. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/how-nature-changes-the-brain/

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Community Findings

Notes from June 3, 2015 Montshire River Society annual event

It’s always wonderful to be in the company of great Museum friends who share a commitment to science education and the joys of hands-on learning.

As you can imagine, moving to the Upper Valley from New York City has been quite an adventure, but supportive friends and community members have made the transition easy. The Montshire is a special place, and moment-to-moment, I feel like the experiences, environment, and community are catalyzing my deep life-long interest in science. I, much like yourselves, have a voracious curiosity and over the past seven weeks, I’ve used my scientific thinking to observe, collect data, and produce a few findings (like a good researcher should do)—and I have a few simmering findings that I’d like to share.

Finding 1: Science drives our community. While the Upper Valley may not have a fun moniker like “Silicon Valley”, our region has a strong and ever-growing presence of science industry and research. It’s easy to cite hospitals as a leader in the medical field, but we are fairly well represented with companies and research institutions that focus on manufacturing, aeronautics, green technologies, energy, conservation, horticulture, biotechnologies and innovation. I first noticed this when I moved into my home built in 1925, and needed no less than three highly skilled technicians to help me figure out how to turn on the heat. Between oil, propane, and wood, my own house is a constant science experiment in air molecule management.  This leads me to:

Finding 2: The Upper Valley is generous. The three technicians, who taught me to heat my home, didn’t make fun of me for asking too many questions. They were generous with their time, because they understood the value of educating me on things such as the dangers of what propane smells like. This generosity extends to science learning and training all over the area. The Valley News recently featured GW Plastics in Bethel—just 30 minutes away1. Faced with filling manufacturing positions they’ve started a workforce development program, introducing high school students to the complex STEM topics found in manufacturing. The same can be said of the advanced education programs that Hypertherm provides in Lebanon. This generosity of time, expense, and dedication to locally grown, science-minded employees shows real commitment to human development. The support of River Society Members, Montshire Fund donors and supporters of the David Goudy Discovery Fund shows the same type of dedication to our community’s well being. What the Montshire does best is introduce and encourage a lifelong interest in science. We know that core concepts in science can seem overwhelming, but the way we present them in our exhibitions and programs help spark an interest to be more curious about our world. And it’s not just for kids. Adults need to remember that science is all around them too—especially if science is driving our economy. This leads me to:

Finding 3: There is a need for the Montshire. In my talks with various stakeholders in the community, I’ve come up against a very curious statement: “the Upper Valley doesn’t deserve a world-class science museum—but we have one.” Well, I believe that there are a million reasons for the Upper Valley to have an extraordinary informal science institution—and one that serves multiple purposes. This week VPR’s Vermont Edition produced a story about issues in manufacturing2. In the next 10 years, there will be almost 5,500 unfilled jobs in Vermont alone. In this piece, Vermont’s Commerce and Community Development secretary contributed that, “you can’t easily…train for these jobs. You need to educate for these jobs. In order to meet the needs of these industries, we must make sure that our education system, from Kindergarten through college, provides adequate science, technology, engineering and math instruction.” Bob Zider, CEO of the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center said, “The types of people that we need today in an advanced manufacturing company are people that have critical thinking skills and who are interested in innovating.”

The roots of innovation are found in every corner of the Montshire. We don’t know who the next great scientist is, but we have to keep creating experiences that push all of our visitors to keep thinking creatively. By strengthening schools’ science programs through our School Partnership Initiative and providing museum access to low-income families, we are making a difference in a community that needs us.

Beyond science, our community also needs a vibrant place to work, learn, and grow. Our most valuable asset (besides the 100 acres) is the caring community that works and supports our museum, and the extra mile they go to make sure that every type of interaction is valuable.

I’m going to leave you with my most recent favorite Montshire Moment. Yesterday, our Exhibits Maintainer Lorenz Rutz, asked to speak to me in my office. Lorenz takes care of our animal collection, so I always have to prepare myself for the worst. A visitor had come to Lorenz and said, “Hey, you’re in my book…you should know that.” That can be a good or a bad thing—but in our case it was a very good thing. The visitor was Lyn Elizabeth Ujlaky, a local teacher who wrote a book called, She’ll Be Home in the Springtime: A Story of a Mother, a Daughter and Asperger’s. For two years Lyn’s daughter Cait, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, worked as a volunteer on Saturday mornings with Lorenz. When Cait’s adult aid could no longer assist her, Lorenz took on that role on top of his normal duties. Ujlaky recounts: 

When I came back to pick her up, I found the two of them [Lorenz and Cait] shoveling the sidewalks together. Her cheeks were red, her eyes bright.
          “Hey, how was it today?” I asked.
          “Great, the fish nibbled at my fingers. It feels so cool when they do that.”
         “What else did you do?”
“I cleaned the ball machine. It was fun.”
          I couldn’t imagine that cleaning steel balls was much fun, but Cait loved it. It was a huge Rube Goldberg contraption with a series of ramps and wheels. It fascinated Cait. Lorenz had to use a drill to remove the heavy plexiglass panels so that Cait could get at the twenty-five golf-sized balls and individually clean each one. Caiti’s biggest thrill was using the drill herself with Lorenz guiding the pieces as they came off.

Later the mother goes on to say:

Cait was starting to let others in and beginning to reach out. All these people touched her life in ways I couldn’t. I was grateful and surprised that they not only understood my daughter, but also appreciated her differences.

This is only one story of how we touch someone’s life—and there are a million. I hope to keep finding more special moments like this as I continue to perform more action research in the community.

Thank you again for all of your generous support. You help to make all of these Montshire Moments happen.

1.  http://enterprise.vnews.com/2015/05/31/teaching-tech-gw-plastics-introduces-students-to-modern-manufacturing/
2.  http://digital.vpr.net/post/new-england-will-struggle-fill-advanced-manufacturing-jobs-study-finds

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