Science Museum Director Sees Tech Partnership as “Wave of the Future”

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Science Museum Director Jim Rollings.
Science Museum Director Jim Rollings.

by Melvin E. Matthews, Jr.

As Jim Rollings, the new executive director of the Science Museum of Western Virginia explains it, the museum needed to find new ways of doing things – or perhaps diminish in importance.

Accordingly, a task force study committee was launched to study how other science museums and universities were working in partnership—only to find that the kind of affiliation that eventually emerged between the Roanoke-based organization and nearby Virginia Tech didn’t exist.  The collaborations that did involved the university assisting the museum with specific projects or educational programs, or the university completely owning the museum.  Hence, with no preexisting model to study, the task force had no choice but to create the model itself.

In October, an agreement forging the new relationship between Tech and the Science Museum was signed, whereby essentially the university acquires access to the audience the Science Museum has developed over the years, and the museum gains access to the content, programming and technology found on the Blacksburg campus.

  Rollings explains that the focus of the new Tech-Science Museum partnership will be on university students.  “You can imagine graduate students conducting studies for their classes that involve the Science Museum location [or] Science Museum audiences. That’s academic content that you can also put into that mix—things like a speakers series that brings noted folks from the university campus here.”

Rollings says the partnership is a two-way street: “in return, you can also look at the Science Museum having access to…the general public [and] educators in the public school system, administrators that we have everyday relationships with because of our long ties with the school systems. [Now] Virginia Tech, by partnering with us, can talk with the same kind of ease that we already do.”

Though the Tech-Science Museum partnership is still virtually brand new, some activities are already ongoing – one of which, involving robotics,  which Rollings characterizes as “one of the outstanding areas in Virginia Tech research.”  Tech and the Science Museum “can [also] reach students who need additional support.  And, of course, we’re already talking about where research can come into play to help determine how effective [the] Science Museum education [program is].”

Regarding academics for Tech students, Rollings calls it “a wide open subject, but areas that come immediately to mind would include students conducting research as a class assignment for a grade that involves audiences and activities taking place in the Science Museum,” and exhibit development where students “would be able to study what type of exhibits might be developed that will achieve a certain educational goal.”  This type of research can be shared with all science museums.

The life span of the current Tech-Science Museum partnership is two years, which Rollings feels will be sufficient to determine if the affiliation is mutually beneficial.  “Assuming that it does, and we’re making every effort to make sure that that partnership will go on, it will expand into all areas of what the Science Museum is doing.”  Rollings believes that in a few years, other universities and science centers will look at the Tech-Science Museum partnership and ask, “how are you doing that?’  That looks like it’s working pretty well.  Can we use it as a model? We believe this partnership can become a model for other universities and science museums, in terms of educational delivery. I think it’s the wave of the future.”

Current plans for the Science Museum, now located on the upper level of Tanglewood Mall, are for it to return to its original home in 2013, with the completion of Center in The Square’s current renovation.

“We’re adding classrooms that we’ve never had before,” says Rollings, “and we are conducting our own fundraising campaign to the tune of about $5 million, to rebuild and restart every exhibit in the place.”  Most of the latter will be brand new—which Rollings feels will transform the Science Museum into “perhaps the number one attraction downtown – at least for our opening year and possibly beyond that.”