At the Discovery Museum, we’ve heard it all:
“Are you the one in New Jersey?”
“Oh, I thought you were in California.”
“You mean I didn’t call Texas?”
“I’m so sorry, I thought you were in Massachusetts!”
That just scratches the surface–there are a lot of places that have “discovery” in their name. At conferences, our staff have an easy camaraderie with teams from other “discoveries” because we’ve all heard the same thing. It’s a great ice-breaker among colleagues.
In my years at Discovery (the one in Bridgeport, Connecticut), I’ve experienced many of these calls, and it got me thinking–what does “discovery” really mean to all of us, anyway? Why is it so important that it’s part of all of our identities? What about “discovery” is so meaningful that it is part of our organizations’ missions?
I grew up one town over from the Discovery Museum, and I’m sure I visited many times as a kid. It’s hard for me to remember because so many of my formative science experiences as a child are things I see reflected in the work we do today. It might have been the Henry B. duPont III Planetarium that I visited, or it might have been a planetarium my family visited on vacation somewhere far away; either way, the result is the same: awe, a humbled sense of my own place in the universe, and a burning desire to learn more.
My first strong memory of visiting Discovery (this one, specifically) comes from a field trip to the Challenger Learning Center. My class participated in a simulated moon mission, where I was the communication officer responsible for making sure that the mission ran smoothly and all of my peers had the information they needed to be successful. Even though I was probably assigned that role because I was a theater kid and a chatterbox, that experience transformed my opinion of my value as part of a team–instead of being the bossy kid who talked over everyone, suddenly my talent for sharing information was an essential function. That field trip made me wonder–what does it really take to be part of a science team? What else could I do that I wouldn’t have imagined was important before?
When I give tours of Discovery today (again, in Connecticut), I tell the story of that field trip. I tell people that the true value of a Challenger mission lies in these three things: the experience really does create memories that will last a lifetime; the mission encourages essential job-preparedness skills like communication, collaboration, teamwork, and problem-solving in addition to specific scientific skills like measuring and tracking data, comparing results, or analyzing to draw conclusions; and the outcome of the mission almost always includes students leaving with a sense that they don’t need to grow up to be scientists, because they already are scientists.
I’ve been at Discovery for five years, and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of investigations and experiments, and I’ve asked a lot of questions. Some projects are ones I experienced in school, some I did independently as a child, and many others are new experiences for me, even as a scientifically-minded adult. I love when my team comes in with a new question or a new experiment, and some of my favorite days are when students ask questions that completely stump us. “I don’t know,” we answer, to their surprise, “but let’s find out.”
It’s that spirit of embracing the unknown, of experimenting and asking and admitting when we don’t know, that defines the idea of “discovery” that is so essential to all of these peer organizations. All of us, I’m sure, aspire to be places where people ask questions and look for answers. All of us, undoubtedly, have named ourselves with a pioneering attitude that encourages student-driven inquiry and personal growth in scientific understanding, and we seek to foster a sense of wonder and excitement in our guests that leads them to ask more, read more, visit more, and learn more.
While there are plenty of places in the world that adhere to these ideals as guiding principles, there’s only one Discovery Museum in our community, and I am grateful every day that I get to be part of this mission to inspire wonder and ignite creativity, so future generations of scientists can learn how to embrace their own journey of discovery.