Column: Science Center is a place that ‘matters’

11/24/2013 8:00 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The entrance to Long Island Science Center on West Main Street.

I couldn’t believe 60 first-graders could stay so captivated for so long. Every kid’s eyes were glued to the center of the room, heads tilted, little mouths agape. They were spellbound. But this wasn’t “Fantasia” or a more modern Disney movie. This was science.

Michael White, editor

Michael White

Material science, of all things. This particular lesson was called States of Matter. And when it came time for the children to retreat to individual work stations for some hands-on lab work, the room and the other children around them seized to exist. They had a task to complete, after all, and that was to apply a special solution to the dozen or so pebbles waiting for them in petri dishes.

They were then told by the instructor that, in a few days, they would begin to notice crystals forming on those little rocks. Soon, they’d have their own crystal gardens. Of course, they’re still kids; delayed gratification isn’t exactly their thing. And so began the second part of the lesson, which ended with the Sachem School District students making ice cream. Ice cream!

This is the type of pure magic that goes on almost every day at the Long Island Science Center in downtown Riverhead, and for an adult like myself, who had never stepped inside the center, it was a lesson on how a properly managed and sustainable nonprofit group with a purely altruistic mission can offer a huge public benefit to children and parents alike, not to mention the local school systems.

“A lot of the elementary schools don’t have science teachers, especially with all the recent cutbacks,” said the center’s executive director, Michelle Pelletier. So the schools use the science center for “enrichment” alternatives, she said. While that’s good for business, Ms. Pelletier can’t help but feel opportunities are being missed in the schools, as the younger kids seem to be the most engaged when learning how things work. That enthusiasm is plain to see during any day at the center.

After each lesson, the students — usually on a field trip or a weekend birthday party — are invited to roam the Exploratory Enrichment Center, an interactive, educational display play area. The rules for the kids are simple, and just the opposite of what they’re told to do at home: Touch everything. (Oh, and no running.) So the children will fan out to the interactive weather station or the dino-dig, to look for fossils. They’ll check out the snakes and Madagascar hissing cockroaches or just play with the magnets or building blocks. On Saturdays, this museum side of the center is open to the public, with admission just $5 a head.

Among Ms. Pelletier’s favorite and oft-repeated quotes from the children who visit the center are:

“I didn’t know that!”

“You guys like dinosaurs too?”

“Are you a scientist?”

“I’ve never been to a museum before.”

She’s hoping to hear more of these types of adorable phrases, as the center is planning a big move from its aging West Main Street building to the vacated West Marine storefront on East Main, closer to the Long Island Aquarium. The new space is planned to be much bigger, allowing the center to remain open to the public throughout the week, even when lessons are going on in the classrooms.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more worthy — yet often overlooked — organization in the town or county. Not only does the science center offer programs for children but high school interns build most of the hands-on exhibits. Teenagers from Riverhead, Mercy and other high schools also sit on its Board of Youth Trustees, charged with keeping the exhibits fresh and, presently, improving community outreach through social media.

The museum is in contract to purchase its new space, with real estate developers in contract to buy the current museum building. When the move is complete, the new center will feature more professionally built displays, including a state-of-the-art Leonardo da Vinci exhibit currently mothballed in the science center’s storage room for lack of space. The Board of Trustees, which includes two Brookhaven National Laboratory scientists, also envisions placing an emphasis on technological breakthroughs that are happening, and have happened, right here on Long Island.

It could even be a place where Intel Science Talent Search participants show off their work, I’m told.

By far the most popular exhibit in the museum right now is the dino-dig. Ms. Pelletier said, pointing to a square table covered in sand. The kids brush the sand away to unearth planted fossils that are explained on a chart nearby.

“I would love to have a big dino-dig that the kids could step into,” she said. “But this is our space. I wish it were bigger. But we’re working on it.”

To learn more about supporting the Long Island Science Center, visit 11 West Main St. in Riverhead or lisciencecenter.org.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at mwhite@timesreview.com or (631) 298-3200, ext. 152.