Sleepovers at Grandmother’s house included a blanket of stars sweeping the night sky. Set in the country, it doubled as the perfect planetarium, the first Michele Crowl ever stepped through.
“I remember how bright they were,” she said. “It was fun to just sit on her porch and dream.”
Three academic degrees and countless stargazing sessions later, Crowl is still dreaming. As the recently named interim executive director of Discovery Space, an interactive science museum in State College, the Hollidaysburg native works to get the next generation of scientists and thinkers looking up, around, anywhere but down. Curiosity may have slayed a few cats, but it also produced the dudes who discovered DNA.
“When kids get experiences outside of school to do hands-on learning and engage in science and engineering, for some of them, science is the way they understand their world,” Crowl said. “If we can help kids see that science is more than just reading a textbook, and learn to have a love for science and that questioning piece that I accidentally had way back when, then we can open up their world to potential careers.”
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And like many of the museum’s visitors, the space itself is still growing. Crowl, who earned her Ph.D. in science education from Penn State in 2016, helped with the opening of the museum in 2011.
From her grandmother’s porch to the Discovery Space, the lifelong docent shared her journey from looking at the stars to helping create the next generation of them.
Q: What kind of student were you when you were the age of some of your visitors?
A: Growing up, we didn’t have any kind of science museum like this in my hometown, which is a motivation in growing this place. I think I would have loved it. We didn’t travel to the bigger ones a lot. I just remember being very curious.
Q: Where did your love for science begin?
A: I remember having a lot of questions about things when I was a kid. I remember sitting on the beach wondering why somebody had said it was high tide or low tide. I had asked my mom or dad how the tides happened and how they were caused, and I remember them saying “it has something to do with the moon,” which made no sense to me as a child. How can the moon have anything to do with what’s happening on the beach in front of me? But I was always interested about what was happening in the sky.
Q: How did you first get involved with Discovery Space?
A: I started my Ph.D. program in the fall of 2010 and one of the professors who I was working with was connected with the early efforts to get Discovery Space started, and through him I learned about it. We were all volunteers at that time. I didn’t know how to just be a student because I had been working before that in museums. So it was a really nice mix of taking academic courses and research on campus and then helping get this science museum open downtown. Time has flown since then.
Q: What kept you with it since the beginning?
A: We have some families whom I met the first weekend that we were open who still come to the museum. We also do a lot of outreach, and we hear from those kids and families that if there’s time, they’ll do science in school, but typically not a lot of time is spent on science.
We don’t assume every kid who comes through Discovery Space is going to be a scientist or engineer, but we want them to know it’s an option and understand what it might mean to them if they choose that as a career.
Q: Have you seen any trends in how kids are learning today?
A: Anyone who has ever worked with children knows the importance of hands-on, engaging experiences. And so we’re fortunate that we can create every experience that way. We hear from other educators and parents that even the student in class who is not typically engaged in the daytime school, can come to an after-school program and all of a sudden they’re doing something that doesn’t feel like school. They’re doing hands-on tasks and they’re engaged in a way that they aren’t typically.
Typically the best students are the ones who aren’t worried about “is this the right or wrong way to do it,” but they’re willing to try different ways. And so it’s not always your straight-A students who excel more than anyone. It really levels the playing field.