Story by Jacob Anderson, Project Assistant (March 2024)

Science centers have a long history of inspiring curiosity and igniting a passion for learning through engaging and interactive exhibits that make complex scientific concepts accessible and enjoyable for visitors of all ages.  Since its inception, the Argosy Foundation, dedicated to providing accessible science education for all, has found science centers to be a seamless fit. The foundation’s support for science centers has continually grown over the years, typically in the communities connected to the Foundation such as Discovery World in Wisconsin, Fairbanks Museum in Vermont, SEE Science Center in New Hampshire, and Museum of Science in Boston.

Snapshot of Boston’s Museum of Science from an Argosy Foundation visit.

Seeing the need for science education across the country, the Argosy Foundation expanded its support in 2023 to include science centers in often overlooked and underinvested communities outside the traditional Argosy network. Newly funded centers in 2023 mark an effort to make science education more accessible regardless of one’s location.

In rural communities and smaller cities, science centers serve as educational beacons, offering opportunities not available in local schools due to resource limitations and local objections to curriculum content. These centers often encounter financial hurdles as they lack a substantial audience nearby and a pool of local business donors compared to their urban counterparts. Despite facing financial constraints, these centers play a vital role in extending STEM education to communities situated at considerable distances from any major population center  .

“It’s a common misconception that there isn’t a huge amount of STEM talent in rural areas.”

A clear example of this is North Dakota’s Gateway to Science, which has existed as the state’s only science museum in a few different locations before opening its brand-new building in March 2023. They will celebrate their 30th year this summer. As a result of the new building, the attendance of the museum more than quadrupled   over the year.  “A normal field trip, they’d spend about an hour there total,” Education Director Arin Casavant said of their old space, “now, it’s huge. You know, we have over 100 exhibits, but they’re always changing, they’re always interacting.”

However, North Dakota’s Gateway to Science’s STEM education is not limited to one location. Rather, they provide STEM education with no additional travel costs across the entire state (occasionally across state lines) up to over 4 hours away to communities lacking access to specialized educational activities like dissections, robotics, and physics experiments. Classrooms where several grades share one teacher and indigenous schools on reservations are common in the state and serve as prime opportunities for educational outreach. Often, grants are able to provide these experiences to our community for little to no cost. Argosy Foundation support to the museum helps this work continue to meet growing demands on staff.

Similarly, Argosy support for the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock, AR directly provides access to science education to those who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity. Specifically, the Museum of Discovery's Science for All program provides reduced admission for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients by charging only $2 per SNAP cardholder and five additional guests. The Museum of Discovery stands out as the only admission-charging museum in Arkansas to join this program, benefiting over 20,000 museum guests since 2018. The Museum of Discovery uses support from Argosy Foundation to help defray the lost revenue from these discount admission programs. The Museum of Discovery has ambitious goals for 2024, aiming to break attendance records, expand its strong membership base, complete renovations on four of its five galleries, and add a dedicated space for neurodiverse guests.

Christiansburg Middle School gym bleachers filled for the SMWV FIRST Tech Challenge.

In this new batch of grants, Argosy Foundation also saw an opportunity to complement existing, longstanding, vital support of the FIRST Robotics program in the United States. FIRST Robotics programs and science centers often form mutually beneficial partnerships to increase accessibility to crucial robotics education and interscholastic collaboration. To strengthen these partnerships, the foundation offered additional support to our new partners for the sole purpose of FIRST Robotics.

The Science Museum of Western Virginia used new support from Argosy to sponsor a FIRST Tech Challenge event at Christiansburg Middle School on December 2nd, 2023. Although the venue for the event was nearly 40 minutes away from the science center, an event like this is well within the geographic outreach for the science center.  “We do a lot of outreach, up to about a two-hour drive away,” Development Director, Carrie Knopf, said. “It’s a common misconception that there isn’t a huge amount of STEM talent in rural areas.” Argosy Foundation support was instrumental in the science center’s strengthening partnership with the local FIRST organization. Regarding the success of the event, Knopf said, “The robotics teams are collaborating with each and lifting each other up… It’s really a culmination of community.”

“All their life, they had been told to wait for someone to come and rescue them. And now, these kids see themselves as the superheroes.”

Argosy Foundation also offers opportunities to participate in FIRST through the Great Lakes Science Center Robotics Initiative in Cleveland, Ohio. The center has partnered with FIRST Robotics since 2019, and with the help of Argosy and other sponsors, their Robotics Initiative has quickly grown from four teams to six teams in 2023, representing 16 different high schools in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. JonDarr Bradshaw, Coordinator of the Great Lakes Science Center Robotics Initiative said, “They have made it their mission to reach out to Black and brown students, to inner city kids, and open doors that they didn’t even know existed.”

The Great Lakes Science Center Robotics Initiative instigated a transformative shift by providing students in the historically underperforming Cleveland school district with new opportunities. This not only addressed academic challenges but also injected diversity into the FIRST program. Notably, one of the initiative's recent accomplishments is the establishment of an all-girls FRC team, drawing students from 11 different local high schools. JonDarr, reflecting on the impact, shared, "All their life, they had been told to wait for someone to come and rescue them, and now, these kids see themselves as the superheroes."

The Argosy Foundation's commitment to advancing science education through strategic donations to science museums has had a transformative impact on communities across the nation. By expanding their reach to overlooked and underinvested communities, the foundation has empowered institutions like North Dakota’s Gateway to Science and the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock, AR, to become educational beacons in their regions. Furthermore, the Science Museum of Western Virginia and the Great Lakes Science Center Robotics Initiative demonstrate how the symbiotic relationship between science centers and programs like FIRST Robotics can enhance the reach and inclusivity of crucial educational initiatives. As we look to the future, science centers and Argosy Foundation's contributions to them are not only enriching the present state of science education but also laying the groundwork for a more vibrant and diverse scientific community for generations to come.