Discovery and beyond

Bill Finch

Bill Finch grew up during the Space Age and remembers the effect it had on him and his peers in southwestern Connecticut in the 1960s.

“There were space shots all the time,” he said of mission launches that eventually landed a man on the moon in 1969. “People were inspired to grow up to be astronauts and scientists because of all the excitement.”

Now Finch wants the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport, where he became executive director early this year, to play a role in preparing today’s children for high-end jobs in technology, clean energy and related fields.

“We need to develop talent through science centers like this that can program the robots, games and home appliances of tomorrow,” he said. “All that work will need to be done by science-savvy people.”

The Discovery Museum focuses on space and science, with an increasing focus on the STEM specialties (science, technology, engineering and math). It’s a place known for hands-on exhibits and activities.

“I guarantee if you come here you’ll learn something new and have fun,” said Finch, calling a visit to the Discovery Museum a great way for parents to interact with their children. “It’s all learning by doing,” he said.

The Discovery is located on upper Park Avenue near the Merritt Parkway and Sacred Heart University. It’s become part of a learning and recreational hub with its proximity to SHU, the Discovery Adventure Park ropes course, Discovery Magnet School, a 36-hole golf course and healthcare facilities.

On July 25, Connecticut’s bond commission approved $1,854,000 for the Discovery Museum to make much-needed improvements, upgrades, and repairs.

“This is great news for kids and families across the state and region,” said Finch. “I want to sincerely thank members of the state bond commission – including Governor Malloy – and members of Bridgeport’s state delegation for their support of the Museum and this much-needed investment in our future.”

The museum celebrates its 60th anniversary this fall, having started in 1958 as the Museum of Art, Science & Industry. The local Junior League wanted a place to teach science to youngsters.

Anyone who grew up in the greater Bridgeport region can fondly remember visiting the museum for a planetarium show and other activities. “We want to keep that tradition going,” Finch said.

John Chamberlain, the museum’s chief operating officer, stressed the museum is always changing with new exhibits and programs. “People who come back after five years don’t recognize the place,” Chamberlain said.

The Discovery Museum is busy during the summer, when it offers an assortment of children’s camps for different age groups. Youngsters can learn about rockets, dinosaurs, 3-D design, oceans, roller coasters, severe weather, and even how candy is made.

The museum is a frequent day stop for outside camps, scout troops and school groups. “We do a lot of informal learning here,” Chamberlain said. “Science teachers get excited because they can show kids how to do things.”

Youngsters can do everything from making helicopters out of paper and watching them fly in a wind tunnel to maneuvering on miniature indoor climbing apparatus.

The Dare to Discover room uses hands-on activities to teach about earthquakes, electricity and speed, while MoonBase Discovery features an Apollo spacesuit. There are science demonstrations, a room on energy sources, space and science art exhibits, a weekend cafe, and five classrooms for specialized learning.

The full-dome planetarium rotates 20 different shows, with three showings per day.

The Challenger Center is one of the museum’s highlights. It features a mock space station and control room. Visitors can participate in a simulated space flight during a two-hour program put together by actual astronauts.

While popular with youngsters, some corporate groups are using the Challenger Center as a team-building exercise.

A newer feature is Science on a Sphere, a five-foot wide globe that visitors can turn into the Earth, moon, sun and planets. It can be used to highlight data in a three-dimensional format, such as showing where all the world’s Facebook connections are located. Data is provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The museum sponsored a Maker Day, following in Bridgeport’s footsteps as a center of industrial innovation in the 19th and 20th centuries. “Parents are really excited about how to get their kids making things,” Chamberlain said.

Summer events include a Superhero Day and the School of Science and Wizardry, exploring the science of magic.

The museum recently hosted a Tesla Day, when a local sustainability organization used the grounds to display electric vehicles for the public.

The Discovery Museum is a popular place for birthday parties, wedding receptions and corporate gatherings. Securing rental income is important as the museum seeks to become more entrepreneurial, said Finch, a former Bridgeport mayor and state senator known for his environmental activism.

The museum attracts about 65,000 visitors a year, has a $1.7 million annual budget and has full- and part-time employees. It is looking for more people to volunteer as docents, particularly on the weekends.

Finch likes to tell the story of a woman in her 30s who worked for NASA and now is a Boeing employee. Growing up in Norwalk, she was in a youth astronaut program and visited the Discovery Museum.

“It was the Challenger Center that made her want to work for NASA,” Finch said.

You can learn more about the museum, at 4450 Park Avenue (off Merritt Parkway exit 47), by visiting discoverymuseum.org or calling 203-372-3521.

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