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In early 2020, the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio was on the rise. The museum had sold the most tickets in its history in 2019, the Ohio Museum Association named it the best museum in the state, and USA Today ranked it as the best science museum in the country.
Then almost overnight, the pandemic shut down schools, businesses and museums. COSI President and CEO Frederic Bertley summed up the problem succinctly: “We are a physical museum. When you come here you pull a button and push a lever. If we can’t open our doors, we don’t get any income.
Science museums typically make more than half of their income from “people walking through their doors,” said Adam Fagen, director of communications, advocacy and member engagement at the Association of Science and Technology Centers. Not only did COSI and other science museums face financial uncertainty, but their leaders were challenged to discover new ways to fulfill their core mission of providing hands-on learning to local children and their families.
While many museums, including COSI, have stepped up their online offerings, more is needed. Bertley and the makers of The Works: Ohio Center for History, Art & Technology, an interactive museum near Newark, quickly came up with the same answer: to create take-out kits that kids could use to replicate lessons typically learned. inside the walls of the museum.
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The idea for the kits was not new, said Bertley: “Twenty years ago we had Ziploc bags and pipe cleaners. But making and distributing materials during a period of social distancing was a challenge.
With staff working remotely and funding uncertain, Meghan Federer, deputy director of The Works, and her group of 16 full-time staff reflected on activities the children could do at home. Instead of gazing at the night sky in the SciDome Planetarium or building their own race car in the museum, kids were introduced to civil engineering by using the card stock provided to create square, triangular, or circular columns. Students could then test the strength of each shape by placing books on it to see which column could hold the most weight.
Federer said the early kits from The Works offered activity and targeted a specific age group. But she quickly realized that including up to seven activities per kit and making them flexible enough to suit elementary and high school students worked best for families.
The Works distributed its first kits by partnering with libraries. The same type of work was happening at COSI, where staff created activities based on the museum’s best exhibits on topics such as space, water, nature, and the human body. Activities correlated with state science learning standards and national next generation science standards, Bertley noted.
Each of COSI’s kits includes materials and instructions for five experiments. For example, his space kit includes 3D glasses, a balloon, a straw, an activity book, string, tape and toothpicks. So instead of playing inside COSI’s 320,000 square foot building – which features a dinosaur gallery, rotating exhibits where kids can drive a Mars rover into space, and a Marvel exhibit featuring costumes and superhero movie props – kids could build a rocket by threading the string through the straw and tie it taut, explode the balloon, tie it to the straw, then release the air from the balloon and measure the distance he traveled along the string.
While the museum sold some kits for $ 35, it gave away 90 percent of them for free, Bertley said. Other museums across the country have also turned to creating and distributing kits, charging at least a nominal amount, Fagen said. But many of them have only done so in a limited way.
In Ohio, however, with families locked in, kits offering activities that introduced or reinforced science concepts while allowing siblings and parents to work together were an immediate success. The Works distributed over 10,000 activity boxes. And COSI has created 110,000 kits so far, partnering with 251 library branches and all 88 counties in Ohio to distribute what it calls learning lunch boxes. The museum has sent kits to each of the state’s 611 school districts, and its efforts have even extended to 12 neighboring states, Bertley said.
COSI began its program using county funds, but early success led to additional support from the state, the city of Columbus and various private organizations, Bertley said. The money allowed the museum to outsource the work of compiling the kits.
Bertley said one example immediately proved its worth: At a food distribution site, two children arrived on their own to get kits, he said. “They were so excited that they opened them up and started their experiments where we were handing them out.”
At The Works, Federer said the museum funded the creation of its initial kits by reallocating STEM funding it had already received. Once the kits became popular, Licking County donated money to the CARES Act museum and it received two corporate STEM grants to continue its work.
As the kits’ success grew, Federer said, “We found our circle was growing through these contacts.” For his work, the Ohio STEM Learning Network awarded him its STEM Innovator Award this year.
She admitted that the museum was limited in the number of kits it could produce, especially after it reopened in October 2020. Because they had not outsourced any activity creation work, staff members had to juggle their regular tasks with the manufacture and distribution of kits. Additionally, finding storage space inside the building for kits that had not yet been distributed was a challenge, she added.
Even so, the kits may well become a permanent part of the regular offerings of both museums.
“These are products that don’t stop now that we have opened our doors,” said the President of COSI. “They created new sources of income and an impact on the community. ”
While these efforts have certainly raised public awareness about COSI and The Works, Bertley and Federer said they could not yet say whether the kits will attract more visitors. COSI includes a free ticket to visit the museum in each, while The Works offers admission discounts to families who complete an activity package survey.
Even without this data, the two said they would continue to create and distribute kits until 2022. COSI plans to distribute another 75,000 by April, but will stop after that to study how the kits have been used and to reinvent better designs in the future.
At The Works, Federer said the museum will continue to operate in person and through its activity kits: “It completely fulfills our mission to inspire creativity and learning.”
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