Pivot and Progress: The Putnam Museum Looks to Remake Itself with a STEM Learning Center Print
News/Features - Local News
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 21 March 2013 05:37

(To read the sidebar about the renovation of the Family Museum in Bettendforf, click here.)

This past weekend, we brought our daughter to Davenport’s Putnam Museum and did the full tour. We saw Flight of the Butterflies 3D on the Giant Screen, walked through the new Bodies Revealed show, and saw all the cultural-, regional-, and natural-history displays that visitors have known for decades, from the mummies to the Asian artifacts to Bix’s cornet.

But what kept Emily’s attention was the Spark Learning Lab, a modest career-themed room with the goal of preventing high-school drop-outs.

Our daughter is five and in no danger yet of dropping out of any school – or pursuing any career beyond princess-ing. And the Spark Learning Lab is geared toward fifth- and sixth-graders. But she loved the lab’s drawing program with the dual touch screens (one on the computer and one where the picture was being projected), the construction-plank set (which she’s playing with on this issue’s cover), and the feature that allows visitors to build tube structures and – with the help of a blower – either launch table-tennis balls or keep them aloft.

One station in the room lets visitors connect batteries to simple electrical devices, and another shows how structures they build with Lincoln Logs or those aforementioned planks might fare in an earthquake. The “concentration station” fosters communications skills, as one person describes a block structure and a partner tries to build its twin using verbal instructions alone.

If you want to see where the Putnam is headed, you can look at the conceptual drawings – posted in several locations – of its planned STEM learning center. The $1.5-million project is currently in the fundraising phase, and the museum expects to open it in June 2014. Putnam President and CEO Kim Findlay said adding the STEM center to the Putnam now is “the right time and the right thing for the community and the museum.”

But you’ll get a hands-on sense of the Putnam’s direction in the Spark Learning Lab. Larger-scale hints are available in the interactive components of the current Destination: Space exhibit, with its compressed-air tennis-ball launcher, and a bicycle wheel and rotating platform demonstrating angular momentum.

Implicitly and explicitly, all of these draw a line from playful exploration to science to careers, and that’s what the STEM center will do on a much grander level. It’s an attempt to transform the nearly-century-and-a-half-old Putnam from “nice to necessary,” to use a phrase that’s common in the museum field these days.

Findlay also said the center demonstrates how the Putnam is able to “pivot and progress. Pivot, progress. Pivot, progress. ... If you’re not changing, you’re going backward. You have to be relevant. I think that what we’re doing and how we’re using the resources of the Putnam is just making this place continuously relevant. It’s done that for 145 years. It’s not easy to do when you don’t have an abundance of resources. But ‘resources’ means things in addition to money.”

The Putnam's planned STEM center

Roots and STEM

STEM is an acronym for “science, technology, engineering, and math,” and it’s been an educational buzzword for the past half-decade. STEM education is seen as a way to prepare children for lucrative jobs, a way to tie education more directly to long-term outcomes and economic development.

“STEM careers are growing at four times the rate of other types of careers,” Findlay said, “and the more we’re able to play a role in helping kids to see the fascinating side of science and math, and want to learn about it, I think that’s a tremendous role that the museum can play. The science-center aspect of the Putnam.”

She noted that the Putnam was founded as the Davenport Academy of Science: “What we’re talking about is coming back to the roots of the museum. We don’t have a science center per se in this region.”

The Spark Learning Lab – first opened in early 2011 – is just one starting point for the STEM learning center.

Findlay said the genesis can be traced back to the traveling exhibit Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius, which the Putnam hosted starting in late 2007.

“I was so new to the museum world ... that when I received an e-mail saying that this exhibit was available if we could make it happen in two months, I didn’t know enough to push ‘delete,’” said Findlay, who started at the Putnam in May 2007 after nine years as president of the United Way of the Quad Cities Area. “I pushed ‘reply’ because the price was outstanding. ... I later learned that when the da Vinci exhibit was shown at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago, they spent 18 months preparing for it.”

She said the initial appeal of the da Vinci exhibit was as a “blockbuster” show: “One of the things we needed to do was put the Putnam back on the map. And this da Vinci exhibit seemed a wonderful way to do that, to get people interested in coming back over to the museum and seeing what it has to offer.”

But it also opened the door to some lasting collaborations and programming. For that exhibit, the Putnam worked with the Quad City Engineering & Science Council on a catapult competition for high-school students, a parachute workshop for younger children, and a bridge-building competition for the public – the latter of which has become an annual event.

“There were some successful programs that outlived that exhibition,” said Nichole Myles, the Putnam’s vice president of education.

The Putnam began hosting an engineering camp for kids in 2009, and that year it also hosted its first Lego robotics competition.

Myles was hired in 2010, and she said that “when I came into the picture, the conversation was: ‘Do you think we can do this bigger? Do you think we can do this more?’ ...

“Everything we built like that, particularly in the areas of STEM, grew and grew and grew. It would sell out; we’d still have a waiting list.”

2011 saw the opening of the Spark Learning Lab – then focused on allied health careers – and the debut of the now-annual “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” day. In 2012, the Putnam hosted a Tech Challenge regional qualifier. And earlier this year, the Putnam was one of six sites chosen to receive a video call from the International Space Station.

“A couple things became clear and obvious,” Myles said of the Putnam’s expanding hands-on and interactive science programs. “We’re successful with these things. People keep coming back for them. They want more of them, and they grow. ... But it also became clear that they wanted more than we could ever offer from a programming standpoint. Therefore this concept of something that permanently existed became a little more solidified in our minds.”

The Spark Learning Lab – a partnership with Achieve Quad Cities – was a “beta test,” Myles said. What had been a room devoted to snakes and toads and turtles became a place where children could play in ways that demonstrated aspects of good-paying jobs that don’t necessarily require four-year degrees. (Deere & Company executives helped transform the focus from allied health to engineering in September, Findlay said.)

“There are many, many STEM careers where you can have a very successful career – a very successful entry-level career at least – with getting a certificate ... or getting an associate’s” degree, Myles said.

She added that the Spark lab “changed how we began to look at the museum – the museum as an opportunity for discovery that led to a career path. Not just an inspiration about an idea, but an inspiration about a future for the student.”

Through the new programming and the Spark lab, she said, “the STEM center sort of finds its way out. It comes to life that way.”

Myles added that the Putnam is in an unusual position as a museum with a largely regional reach. Most science centers, she said, are tourist attractions: “Two-thirds of the people coming through those doors are people who are not from that region. ... The Putnam is a different situation. We are serving our community. And therefore, the career connection is very viable to us ... . We have a slightly different outcome in mind. We have a different visitor set.”

Findlay added: “So there’s this opportunity to fill a need in the community while also filling a need for the museum, which is to present this hands-on STEM and have our families maybe get to know the Putnam in a new way or get to know the Putnam for the first time ... .”

Faster, Better, Smarter

Planning for the STEM center was mostly done in mid-2012. On the conceptual drawing, one can see distinct areas for exploration: “Magnets,” “How Things Work,” “Aerospace,” “Innovation.”

And while the drawing at this point articulates possibilities that might be refined or changed, they’re tantalizing. There’s a kinetic sculpture in the Grand Lobby that Findlay hopes visitors can manipulate. A dinosaur dig outdoors, next to a generating station – a playground apparatus whose movement is used to power some device. A water feature.

One attraction is labeled “Pull Yourself Up.” A visitor is poised to throw a paper airplane. You can see gears, not far from a robot.

The master-planning phase included the Putnam, the Ohio-based museum-design firm Roto, the Quad City Engineering & Science Council, and teachers. Joseph Wisne, the president of Roto, said the first task was coming up with a short list of thematic areas, each with three to seven interactive elements.

The next challenge was finding a way to make that work in the Putnam building so the STEM center was concentrated instead of sprinkled throughout the museum. The configuration they came up with required “the least amount of change to the building and its current contents for the most amount of benefit as far as new experiences,” Wisne said.

One striking aspect of the STEM-center plan is that it’s largely contiguous and won’t come at the expense of the Putnam’s longstanding exhibits. “It is not about being an either/or for us,” Myles said. Adding STEM to the museum’s current offerings reinforces the idea that “history is connected to science,” she said. “Culture is connected to innovation.”

“You’re re-purposing space that’s underutilized now,” Findlay said.

So the underused Storytelling Garden becomes the dino dig and generating station. The water feature is planned for an empty outdoor space. The STEM center will take up 7,500 square feet, Findlay said, and the only major current Putnam feature that will be displaced is the crocheted coral reef. (The museum’s total exhibit space is 35,000 square feet.)

“It became clear that we could do this without having to undertake a massive capital campaign to build a huge building we would then have to maintain,” Myles said. The STEM center represents “a faster way, a better way, a smarter way. I think it’s one of the real strengths of the Putnam as a whole. ... It’s not ‘Can we do this?’ ... It’s ‘How will we do this? What’s the smartest way?’”

Findlay said there are two reasons the Putnam is doing the STEM center quickly and with available space: “The need is very immediate. ... The other reason is because we’re not embarking on a capital campaign to build a wing, add a floor, build an addition – which could cost $15 [million] to $20 million. ... The price tag on this is ... about 10 percent of what you would expect it would cost if you were trying to put an addition on.”

As of last week, the museum had raised more than $950,000 for the $1.5-million STEM project – including $100,000 from the City of Davenport and $30,000 from Scott County. (Unlike most museums locally and generally, the Putnam receives no government money for operations.) The Putnam plans to submit an application in July for a $300,000 Community Attraction & Tourism grant from the State of Iowa. Findlay said she hopes fundraising for the center will be finished in October – although she noted that the state grant process typically takes six to 12 months after submission.

Elbow Grease and Duct Tape

The promise of the STEM center is itself an interesting story. It’s also notable that it’s being done space-efficiently, which is one component of how it’s being done on a modest budget.

But there’s more to that story than just recapturing largely dead space for exhibits. And on the cost front, you might as well start at the ground level – literally. So take a look at the floor that the Destination: Space exhibit currently occupies.

Roughly three and a half years ago, Findlay said, the floor had asbestos tile – dating back to the 1960s – that was popping up and needed to be abated. Commercial-grade carpet tile would have cost $40,000. Staining the floor professionally would have also been expensive. “That’s not the place that we were going to put the resources that we have,” Findlay said. So she told her facilities manager: “I think I saw some stuff at the hardware store that you can do that yourself.” And “he and I came in on a Sunday and stained the floor.”

That’s an extreme example of thriftiness in an enterprise with an annual operating budget of roughly $3.3 million, but it seems typical of the Putnam under Findlay. She’s built partnerships in her six years at the museum that have brought in labor, ideas, and know-how for little or no cash. That’s evident with its collaborations with the Quad City Engineering & Science Council, but there are other examples. “People want to be involved in good stuff,” Findlay said. “They’ll donate their time, they’ll help, they’ll bring their expertise.”

Tennant Trucking Lines (of Colona) donated its trucks and labor to deliver the da Vinci, Titanic, and Bodies Revealed exhibits, along with components for the STEM center. Members of building and trades labor unions gave their time and sweat to set up the Titanic show. “It’s saving a tremendous amount of money,” Findlay said, and it’s satisfying to the volunteers.

“What the Putnam has done is find ways to decrease operating expenses while still providing a high-quality ... level of programming ... ,” she added. The museum’s full-time equivalents are down 40 percent since 2004, she said, and total expenses over the past decade have been cut 14.5 percent – or 33 percent when adjusted for inflation.

While Roto hasn’t done its work for free, the company’s president said the Putnam’s approach to the STEM-center exhibits has been unusual.

“High-performing museums recognize the importance of partnerships of all kinds,” Wisne said. “And most of those partnerships come in the form of sponsor relationships, maybe marketing relationships. But there are fewer models out there for exhibit partnerships, where the parties really are pooling resources and combining talents to achieve these extraordinary ends.”

Specifically, he said, “we are providing just the R&D, engineering, mechanical guts of exhibits, and allowing the museum to figure out how they want to design the packages around those.” Typically, he said, Roto will provide everything – up to and including signage.

“Budget is a driver,” he said of the Putnam’s tack. “The other motivation, though, is capacity-building. ... They’ve taken on at least a part of the challenge of design, or construction/fabrication, and especially of interpretation – and by that I mean what the museum’s own voice is to talk to visitors about what they’re learning.”

The Putnam seems eager to take that challenge. As Myles said: “When it comes to needing to do them that way or not doing them at all, where the community is to be served, we will always put the elbow grease in and break out the duct tape.”