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Explorit at 30: A celebration of 1 million minds touched by science

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From page A11 | October 13, 2013 |

explorit1W

Lewis Williams creates a tornado in a bottle at one of Explorit's summer camp sessions this year. The science center is celebrating 30 years of inspiring young minds with hands-on science. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise file photo

Help us celebrate

What: “Touched by Science” fundraiser, featuring food, wine and speakers

When: 5:30-7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19

Where: Explorit Science Center, 3141 Fifth St.

Tickets: $75 general; discounts are available for Explorit members, members of the Cal Aggie Alumni Association, students age 18 and older and teachers; call 530-756-0191 pr visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/437033

By Lars Anderson

In 1983, the founding board of what was then the Davis Science Center probably hadn’t dreamed that what they started would have blossomed and sustained its hands-on, inquiry-based and informal science discovery approach for 30 years!

Yet, as the science center’s evolving on-site and traveling programs expanded to a regional school classroom reach into 15 counties, what is now Explorit continues to inspire young children, their parents and the public with the wonders of science and nature.

What’s even more remarkable is that over those past three decades, Explorit has engaged more than 1 million children and adults in facets of science ranging from the nano scale to ecosystems and space and recently to the intrigue of “Spiders in Your World.”

As Explorit celebrates this amazing achievement on the evening of Oct. 19 at our Mace Ranch Park home base, it’s just as important to reflect on how this was possible, and how Explorit can continue its important contributions. The quality of life in the community —indeed, in the region — depends on the future of young children and their success in a continually increasing science- and technology-driven society.

Explorit’s success in the 1980s and 1990s developed from a need for supplementary science experiences beyond the formal classroom setting and, importantly, using a different model: open-ended activities that incorporate familiar objects and pose interesting questions that pertain to a given subject.

But the crucial component is an emphasis on doing the inquiry-based activity, where the outcome isn’t always known or expected. (Does that sound like real life?) That approach creates interest, and leads to discovery, critical thinking and an ability to develop problem-solving skills. In fact, our mission encompasses this well: “To ignite and foster curiosity about science and nature through inquiry and discovery.”

As effective and valuable as this approach is, Explorit could not have been successful in delivering programs without the support of far-sighted and generous personal donors, corporate donations, grants and fundraising. Fees for services alone could not have sustained Explorit, especially when we strive to include underserved communities as well.

In its early years, Explorit also was provided with space by the Davis Joint Unified School District and later through a formal memorandum of understanding and lease with the city of Davis at Mace Ranch Park. In fact, the demand for programs and the booming economy in the early 2000s prompted our expansion to a facility on Second Street. Then the economic downturn hit.

In 2008, nearly every type of support for virtually all nonprofit organizations dropped precipitously, including Explorit’s. To sustain programming and continue our mission, we made difficult but necessary choices by leaving Second Street, reducing staff and regrouping at our Mace Ranch home. Last year, we reached more than 12,000 people with our on-site programs and with our traveling programs in 80-plus schools.

However, the hard reality is that contributions (all donations, grants and even memberships) to nonprofits are still 30 to 40 percent lower than pre-2008 levels and Explorit struggles as well. Ironically, the need for Explorit’s programs — indeed for many services provided by nonprofit groups — grows while resources have declined.

How can this problem be solved? There are some potential solutions that will take some new strategies and approaches.

First, there is a convergence in national and state standards for science and the need for improvement in approaches to teaching science.

Second, there is a growing recognition that informal science should be integrated into the overall science learning experiences and this also can be coupled with direct public involvement through citizen science. (Explorit launched its first citizen science program as part of our Community Science Project: “Spiders in Your World”.)

Third, there are several nonprofit organizations, and UC Davis, within our region that have shared goals with Explorit where each group’s activity and resources could be enhanced by carefully planned collaborative projects. As we move into the next several years, it is clear that science and nature-based groups will need to join in more formal arrangements to increase their effectiveness and the reliability of funding. Explorit is committed to supporting these collaborations and will host a series of discussion and planning sessions over the next several months.

Our upcoming “Touched by Science” event not only celebrates Explorit’s 30 years, it will raise funds to help sustain our work as well. We have an inviting program with some delicious food, wine and some entertaining events. We also have invited a group of speakers who will provide their perspectives on new directions in science education and the role of Explorit.

For those who have enjoyed our programs and whose children have benefited from both on-site and traveling programs, and those who value quality science and nature experiences for all, I invite you join us on Oct. 19 and lend your support.

Explorit has been here for you and your families for more than 30 years. Let’s work together to start securing the next 30 years! Visit us at www.explorit.org to buy your tickets for “Touched by Science.”

— Lars Anderson is president of the Explorit Science Center board of trustees.

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