Children’s Science Center Gets Closer to ‘Coming Home’

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Photo credit: Children’s Science Center

It’s official: In late 2015, Northern Virginia will have its very own children’s science center, a 5,400-square-foot “lab” at Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, VA. The Lab, the first operating site of the Children’s Science Center, will offer visitors interactive science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) activities and will be the first of its kind in Northern Virginia – an area where STEM disciplines are essential to the local economy and workforce. This exploration center will be followed by Phase III when the Children’s Science Center builds its permanent home, a 53,000-square-foot, world-class science museum at the Kincora development in Dulles.

When the Center announced these big developments in May, the concept of a local science museum may have been news to some people. But those who have followed the Center for some time – and have experienced its offerings in the community and at local schools – know that it has helped young scientists for years.

Operating as a “museum without walls,” the Center reaches thousands of people by bringing science nights to schools, participates in local festivals, and sponsors its own community events. In fact, in 2013 alone, the Center’s Museum Without Walls program served nearly 15,000 visitors at over 60 venues, including schools, libraries, museums, and other locations across the region.

As a non-profit that relies largely on volunteers (the Center just recently hired its first three staff members), the heart and soul of the Children’s Science Center are the people who are making it a reality. Two of its long-term leaders are Executive Director Adalene “Nene” Spivy and Board Chair Tanya La Force. We talked to them to find out more about the Center: its beginning, its mission, and its future.

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PS: In an area that’s home to a world-class city and so many technology companies, why was there not a science center here already?

Tonya: NOVA in general has grown into a city seemingly overnight, and in the past we’ve relied on Washington, DC for culture. But at this stage, with 2.5 million people in the NOVA area, we need resources of our own, particularly in the west.

Nene: This is not an easy thing to do when you’re not government-funded. This is heavy lifting, but the momentum is building, and now we have the attention of the leadership in this region. They agree that there’s a significant gap the Center can address.

PS: When and how did the idea for the Children’s Science Center originate?

Tonya: It goes back to 2004 when a group of community members – lamenting the lack of a science museum here – started talking about having one. They enlisted the help of the Junior League of Northern Virginia – where Nene was a board member – which became one of the earliest supporters.

Nene: I’d already been bitten by the museum bug based on visits with my own children. The idea then blossomed as a mounting effort from many people who knew we were missing something essential that our kids needed. Tonya: With the economic downturn of late 2008/2009, the Junior League really stepped up to ask how they could help. In the meantime, we started the Museum Without Walls and realized what a great demand there was, especially at schools. Our Mobile Labs family science nights now are in such demand that we have a lottery system for schools. We also now offer the Early Childhood Hands-on Science (ECHO) program for preschoolers.

PS: How did your background prepare you for your current role with the Children’s Science Center?

Nene: My background is in engineering and business. I’ve worked in systems development, business process engineering, and market launches, so to take those skills and apply them in the nonprofit sector is a gift. I really consider myself very fortunate.

Tanya: My background is in finance. I worked at a Fortune 100 company focused on continuous process improvement and aggressive goals and at a start-up during the dot-com boom, where I learned how to manage in a fast-growing environment with human-resources constraints. And working in nonprofit sector for the last 10 years, mostly with volunteers, I learned how to motivate people focused on a mission. We can’t underestimate the incredible resources that volunteers have brought to bear on this project.

PS: What does having a local, state-of-the art science center mean to you personally as parents?

Nene: Working to bring a science center here, I’ve involved my kids a lot, so they’ve gained a lot. Once during our travels, I took my kids to five different museums in five days. At the core of it all, kids must have enriching learning experiences outside of school, or they’ll miss much potential. Sometimes the greatest learning moments happen outside of the classrooms. Many parents can’t travel to science centers, so having a local one will help greatly.

Tonya: I’m very lucky that I can bring my kids to Children’s Science Center events, and volunteering for the Center has inspired my husband and me to do more science experiments at home. We need to prepare all children for the future, as jobs will be in STEM fields.

PS: When did you feel that the Children’s Science Center finally was becoming a reality? Nene: I never believed this was not going to be real…and that it was always going to happen.

Find out more about the Center at childsci.org.

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