If you grew up around here, your parents probably took you to the Discovery Museum and Planetarium. You might also have gone on a field trip with your school or Scout troop.
If you’re of a certain age, you remember when the Bridgeport institution — just down Park Avenue from Sacred Heart University — was called the Museum of Arts, Science and Industry.
Steve Baumann recalls all that. Now — after a career spent leading and invigorating children’s science museums from coast to coast (Liberty in New Jersey, Franklin in Philadelphia, Kidspace in Pasadena) — Baumann has returned to the place where his interest in education and kids began.
The new executive director of the Discovery Museum grew up in Westport. One of Staples’ all-time best athletes, he starred in soccer, basketball and baseball. After earning soccer All-America honors at the University of Pennsylvania, playing professionally in the North American Soccer League, earning a master’s in science education at the University of Virginia, then teaching and coaching at the high school and college levels, Baumann embarked on his museum career.
His new job may pose one of his toughest challenges ever.
Children’s museums have changed dramatically since Baumann’s youth. They’ve even changed since kids started using laptops and tablets, just a few years ago.
It’s no longer enough to ask a child to push an exhibit button, watch water flow over a dam, and call it education about hydro-power. Youngsters today have so many more stimuli in their lives — with access to interactive media everywhere they turn — that museum officials must work much harder at engagement.
But the payoff is great. Baumann is an enthusiastic ambassador for the idea that once children are engaged, they nurture their creativity. They explore the world around, and find — hopefully — a lifelong passion for nature, physics, engineering, architecture, whatever.
That’s called “discovery.” And that’s why the Discovery Museum is a perfect fit for the new director.
Last week, Baumann took me on a tour of his new digs. In some places the 50-year-old museum showed its age. In others it was fresh, vibrant and resonant.
It was the same with the exhibits. As one of only 43 Challenger Learning Centers in the country, the Discovery Museum’s new state-of-the-art facility offers kids a chance to become “astronauts” and “engineers” as they solve real-world problems on a simulated flight to Mars.
But the “spaceship” needs an overhaul. And the Challenger center itself relies heavily on computers and monitors, which kids can find anywhere.
It’s the same with “Springs, Sprockets and Pulleys.” The very cool art exhibit features Steve Gerberich’s art made from old machine parts, kitchen utensils, furniture scraps, lighting fixtures, medical supplies and toys. Sculptures move, change forms, even make music.
But, Baumann points out, that’s all they do. He’d like to see a section of the room filled with random stuff scattered about. After viewing Gerberich’s creations, youngsters could have the chance to make their own.
As they do, educators would chat with the kids about the process: What would they like to make? How could they do it? What else would they do with the materials at hand? What else do they wish they’d have?
“That’s really what education is about,” Baumann says. “It’s not just curating an exhibit. It’s bringing those exhibits into the 21st century, so kids are motivated to explore, investigate, and find out that science and creativity are fun.”
Similarly, he points to the Discovery Museum’s well-equipped classrooms. “These are great,” he notes. “But when kids come on a field trip, and they’re all excited to be here, the first thing they see shouldn’t be another classroom.”
Too many museum directors, he says, are not schooled in pedagogy. His goal is to inspire kids to have “a love of learning how to learn.” He loves watching youngsters struggle to find solutions — and smile as they do it.
He believes the museum has an opportunity to reinvent itself, at a time when public interest in science education is high. The opening 2 years ago of the adjacent Adventure Park was a great step toward engaging people both in the city of Bridgeport, and the suburbs around it.
Just as the wildly popular ropes course challenges children (and older folks) to solve problems, so will the reimagined Discovery Museum inspire them to think about the world in new and different ways.
Baumann never wants to stop learning himself. He’d enjoy hearing innovative ideas about the museum from anyone — youngsters, parents, benefactors, corporations, folks who (like him) remember it fondly from their long-ago youth.
You can email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or — better yet — stop by the Discovery Museum, and see it for yourself.