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Giving learning a new frontier

Despite the myriad other attractions throughout Rochester Museum & Science Center’s East Avenue campus, a surprising number of young learners cluster around the museum’s Inventor Center exhibit.

Using supplies ranging from pipe cleaners to dowels to K’nex building sets, the budding scientists are tasked with designing and building vehicles capable of delivering supplies up a miniature “mountain,” actually a series of steep ramps.

Some succeed fairly quickly. Others have to fine-tune their idea before progress is made. Yet others have to scrap their idea and go back to the drawing board. All are engrossed.

That process of trial, error and refinement is what RMSC’s first chief science officer loves to see. Rather than passively absorbing a lecture, the best learning often happens just like this, Daniel Menelly says.

“A good science lesson is when something is discovered,” the 51-year-old former K-12 science teacher adds.

It is a concept that could well be applied to his current job. A little over a year into his tenure at RMSC, Menelly’s charge is to push the institute, which includes the interactive science museum as well as neighboring Strasenburgh Planetarium and the 900-acre Cumming Nature Center in Naples, Ontario County, in directions it previously has not gone.

RMSC ranked second on the most recent Rochester Business Journal list of cultural attractions with more than 373,000 visitors in 2015. The organization has 240 employees, including 158 Menelly oversees.

Under Menelly’s vision, RMSC will become a force promoting deeper understanding of science and technology by visitors of all ages, backgrounds and learning styles. Further, RMSC will become an agent for change in transforming Rochester into a place where culture and technology mesh to draw people in from far and wide.

“I look at Brooklyn, and Brooklyn’s emergence as the place to live. Why is that? The cultural profile of it. They have this museum and (that) evening activity,” he says. “I would love to see Rochester develop that. And it’s happening. There are young, excited people looking to partner and create creative, shared experiences, not just of STEM but all of enrichment.”

A new role
RMSC president Kate Bennett explains the reasoning behind her organization’s creation of a chief science officer role this way: “We wanted the Rochester Museum & Science Center to serve the community in a much bigger way.”

The chief science officer’s duties include overseeing innovative new exhibits and programming, establishing and deepening relationships with third-party partners such as universities and school districts, and finding new opportunities for fundraising.

From fairly early in the selection process, Menelly’s candidacy stood out, Bennett says. In addition to 25 years as a science teacher, Menelly has been on the cover of Teaching Pre-K-8 magazine and has served as a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics adviser for cable network Nickelodeon and PBS. Video Science, a collection of short videos he hosts for the Science House Foundation, has drawn more than a million downloads, museum officials say. Prior to coming onboard at RMSC, he was vice president for science, technology and math education at the Manhattan-based science museum Liberty Science Center.

Yet education was not where he first saw himself spending his professional life.

“I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and I grew up in a culture that was anti-teaching. I remember my neighbors saying those that can, do. Those that cannot, teach,” Menelly says.

After earning an undergraduate degree in biology from Fairfield University in 1987, he took a substitute teaching gig as a graduate student. At the time, it was just a way to earn some extra cash, Menelly says. Somewhat to his surprise, he found himself loving it.

In contrast, science always has been a constant in his life from childhood.

“I was a tinkerer. I grew up in the garage with the jam jars and the bicycle chains. I was always a hands-on kind of a kid, and I was always in the swamp every spring looking for frog eggs,” he says.

Menelly already has had a significant impact at RMSC, Bennett says. Group attendance, such as field trips from schools, increased 42 percent January through May this year compared to the same period the prior year. Attendance at the museum’s school-age enrichment programs, which include RMSC science camps, has increased 19 percent, she adds.

“It’s been terrific,” Bennett says.

“He’s really exceeded our expectations,” says John Bruning, vice chairman of the organization.

In addition to Menelly’s integration of the operations of the planetarium, museum and nature center much more closely, Bruning particularly is pleased with Menelly’s outreach to schools, universities and other outside organizations.

Menelly says there really is not such a thing as a typical day for him. There are, however, a few common touchstones.

“I still have a teacher’s circadian rhythms. I get up at five, and I’m here early in the morning. I do a walk around the whole campus,” Menelly says. “I usually check in with my morning team and check in with the kids, which is exciting to me. At around midday, we get buses and tour groups and I like to watch the interaction.

“In the afternoons, depending on what time of year it is, we often have a special audience of grandparents and grandkids, and I’m fascinated by that interaction too.”

That desire to be in the middle of things led Menelly to build his office on the science museum’s second floor mezzanine, close by to exhibits and guests.

“I do a lot of listening to these groups that come through, and sometimes the feedback we get is hard to hear: ‘Why can’t you do this or why aren’t you doing that.’ The big challenge of helping to run a museum is doing several things well and timing it correctly, because you can invest a lot of time and effort into something that is not successful or not enough into something that is really promising,” Menelly says.

Despite the challenges, Menelly sees the role of RMSC—as well as science museums, planetariums and nature centers in general—as more important than ever.

“It’s the golden age of informal learning, which means, really, any learning that happens outside a classroom,” Menelly says. “Right now, schools are really looking for innovation. Many of them are really looking to museum communities to partner (with) to keep kids interested in science beyond middle school, where things become a little more complex and abstract.”

Emerging audiences
Menelly has also been focusing his energies on drawing what he calls emerging audiences to RMSC, a group that includes younger adults. One part of those efforts is the RMSC After Dark program, an after-hours social event that includes a cash bar along with museum access and science demonstrations.

He also is working to change how philanthropy is done at RMSC through outreach programs such as the Catalyst Circle, a group of younger professionals who hold fundraising events for the organization.

“As you move through your career, one of the markers is participation in a nonprofit activity,” Menelly says. “Traditionally, that would happen maybe in the second half of your career. What we’re excited about with our Catalyst Circle is this opportunity for young people at the beginning of their careers to get involved early.”

These days, he finds much of his time taken up by the creation of the museum’s upcoming fall exhibition, Elements of the Extreme, which will allow visitors to explore and learn about the awesome forces inherent in earth science as well as how the natural world and human societies have adapted to those forces. Among other features, visitors will have an opportunity to build structures and then test their resilience via a simulated earthquake machine, experience flight via a flying squirrel suit and learn about hydrology and topography via an interactive sandbox exhibit that uses augmented reality technology to let users create their own landscapes and explore how water flows over them. 

The exhibit will follow the model set by a previous exhibit, Frogs: A Chorus of Color, Menelly says. The frog exhibit was designed to work for visitors of as many different ages, education levels, backgrounds and learning styles as possible. Among other elements, the program featured live frogs from around the world, visiting scientists from the University of Rochester speaking on frog research and a lily pad story space and play area where young learners could be introduced to the amphibians and their ecosystems, Menelly adds.

“We’re really excited about this combination of living exhibitory, deep discussion of science, but also vertically integrating that into a bigger model. We call it a hybrid model, because in a well-engineered science exhibit there is a space for every learner,” he says.

Bennett also credits Menelly with integrating the museum’s extensive collection of artifacts and specimens with more hands-on exhibits.

“It’s really about the variety of experiences you are able to put in,” she says.

Menelly also expects to see a continued trend toward deeper levels of interactivity in future exhibits.

RMSC’s current Inventor Center exhibit is a prime example, he adds. Rather than simply turning a crank or pushing a button to see a pre-programed action take place, the center requires participants to get involved, to come up with their own ideas then test them.

“It’s not simply interactive but fully participating,” he says. “They’re coming with their own set of ideas, then adding structure to them, exploring them, revising them and designing solutions.”

And when a visitor comes up with a design that does not work as expected—or at all? From Menelly’s perspective, that is perfectly fine. This is where the learning happens. “This went this way and I didn’t expect that but now I know something I didn’t know and I know where to go next,” he says.

Eric Walter is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Daniel Menelly
Position: Chief science officer, Rochester Museum & Science Center
Age: 51
Education: B.S. in biology, 1987, Fairfield University, Fairfield, Conn; science teaching certification, 1991, graduate work, 1989-1992, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn.
Family:  Single
Resident: Rochester 
Activities: Books, dogs, biking, boating, vintage cars and campers, natural history, tinkering
Quote: “I was a tinkerer. I grew up in the garage with the jam jars and the bicycle chains. I was always a hands-on kind of a kid, and I was always in the swamp every spring looking for frog eggs.”

7/8/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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