Science & Discovery Center was ahead of STEM curve

The Science & Discovery Center delivers science, math, engineering and technology education to more than 15,000 area students each year, all on an outreach basis.

The Science & Discovery Center was pushing STEM education long before the acronym entered our vocabulary.

The operation, with offices in Elmira and Corning, brings its science, technology, engineering, and math programs to thousands of area students each year and is marking its 20th anniversary.

“That is the buzzword now. It was our mission 20 years ago. I would say we were ahead of the curve with that,” said Patricia Dann, executive director of the group since it was formed.

The center has primarily worked with grades four to eight, but has begun expanding its prekindergarten math program.

The lean operation has a staff of just five, including three full-time, year-round educators with master’s degrees. Programming is delivered via its mobile science lab, a converted Winnebago, in pupils’ home schools, at area youth centers or at special camps or programs at places like Elmira College or Corning Community College.

“We (provide) between 15,000 and 25,000 students a year with STEM education. … We don’t have a site; it’s all outreach only,” Dann said.

The nonprofit organization, formed in 1994, used to be more visible. It had a storefront operation from 1995-2004 in the Arnot Mall, Big Flats. It moved its exhibits to the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center, Big Flats, in 2004, but left at the end of 2005 to focus on school-based programs.

“We have reinvented ourselves several times. We have always done outreach hands-on science,” Dann said. “It wasn’t until 2005 when we became outreach only. That is not what we thought we were going to be at all. We thought we were going to be a site. It got to the point where we could do more … by going to students at different organizations and schools district than by having them come to us.”

Patricia Dann - Gift for 20 Years of Service
Pat Dann has been executive director of the Science & Discovery Center since its start 20 years ago.
(Photo: MATTHEW BURROUGHS PHOTO)

Dann said the mobile science lab, which is taken to area schools and was purchased in 2002, is fully equipped, wheelchair accessible and can accommodate 24 students in the lab.

“It was very effective for districts to use when finances became tight in recent years,” she said.

The organization receives in-kind support through office space provided by Chemung County Cooperative Extension in Elmira and the Three Rivers Foundation in Corning, plus storage in a building by the airport.

Dann said that same kind of support was received last summer at CCC, where it had 130 participants, and Elmira College, where 122 students took part. Programs ranged from space exploration to outdoor biology to inventions to building buildings.

“They don’t charge us for use of space,” Dann said of the colleges. “Their maintenance helps us. Their administrative staff helps us plan.”

Science & Discovery Center's Mobile Lab
The Science & Discovery Center mobile lab was purchased in 2002 and can accommodate 24 students.
(Photo: MATTHEW BURROUGHS PHOTO)

The center works regularly with five districts that are part of Greater Southern Tier BOCES: Addison, Bath, Corning, Elmira and Horseheads. Dann said the center’s educators come into classrooms there to supplement what district employees are teaching.

“Sometimes, the center’s educators will teach a difficult subject, such as densities. That is a program that is very popular with teachers and students,” Dann said.

The center consults with school district administrators on curriculum, such as Kerry Hochreiter, director of elementary education for the Corning school district, who is also a member of the center’s board.

Some programs are booked through Greater Southern Tier BOCES, where districts put money into a cooperative service agreement known in educational circles as a COSER, and then pull services out, even qualifying for a partial government rebate if their poverty level is high enough, Dann said.

Other programs are booked through grants received by the center or one of the 31 organizations it counts as partners. In its 2013-14 annual report, Corning Inc., with a $100,000 contribution, led the group of 20 local businesses or organizations listed that have donated money

Corning Inc. and its Sullivan Park research and development center in Gang Mills have been supporters since the start.

“That is where the idea came from, Sullivan Park. I think the idea was 1992. Dale Wexell (longtime Corning school board president) was the first president and he hired me,” Dann said.

The center’s newest partner is the Rockwell Museum in Corning, where an art teacher will tie art to STEM education.

“It is an incredibly cost-effective program. We are not paying for heat, light, air conditioning, in general operating expenses,” Dann said. “They are doing perspectives with art, which uses math. With art, there are many things, such as the chemicals in paint. We are also introducing writing a poem about what they do. We are trying to get kids to work more on teams.”

This year, the center brought its prekindergarten math program into places such as the Corning Children’s Center, My Place in Montour Falls, the Chemung County YMCA and the Tioga County Family Resource Center in Waverly and Owego.

“We are still finding that middle school is too late for math,” Dann said, adding starting at an earlier age makes children more comfortable with math as “just another language.”

“There is still a very high percentage of students who have to take remedial math, people entering college, industry. It is pretty scary. The math component is one of the big pieces of STEM we are pushing,” Dann said.