Explorit Turns 20! A Look Back at the First Twenty Years
by Nicole Starsinic

Explorit History Part I: 1979 - 1986
The Foundation Years

I spent ten years in Davis before discovering one of Davis’ best community organizations — Explorit Science Center, an amazing place that welcomes children and adults to touch, feel, and experience science first-hand. As a student at UC Davis, in a field unrelated to science, my path never lead me up the wheelchair accessible ramp and inside to see the fascinating and ever-changing activities. It was not until I married and needed to find a worthwhile activity to do with my then eight-year-old stepdaughter that I first stepped foot into the Center and met “Slither,” not only one of the Center’s long-time residents but also a long, and seemingly friendly, gopher snake. As my stepdaughter Mary held Slither in her arms and John Gallagher, the Exhibit Director, explained to her the snake’s habits and history, I was impressed by both the activities in the room and the friendliness and knowledge of the staff. I knew then that this was a place to which we’d return.

That was three years ago and our family continues to look forward to getting our “Passports” stamped with each new exhibit, Mary attends vacation classes, and I’ve even brought our two-year old son to play with the blocks and books in the Discovery Den. And with each visit, I’ve found I want to know more about how such a diverse and informative Center exists in my own small town. Over the next four issues, the Explorit newsletter will focus on the past 20 years and how a grass-roots organization came to establish such a successful and valuable place in the town’s community.

Over 20 years ago something monumental began to take shape in Davis. In 1979, a group of women scientists and educators involved in the “Friends of the Gifted and Talented” (FGT) community group began to piece together an idea for a community science center. They envisioned an informal center, “a friendly place that anyone, any age, any background” would feel comfortable in, a place people could “find out how science is part of all of our everyday lives.” With these thoughts in mind, the first planning stages for what is now Explorit began.

In the fall of 1980, three women, Anne Hance and Judy Moores, both biologists and educators, and Maria Ogrydziak, an architect, began inviting the public to several coffee meetings to discuss ideas for the science center. Through these informal discussions and feedback from the public, the intent for the center began to crystallize — the center would be for all ages, not just children, and it would focus on “low-tech” science activities that would allow people to discover science for themselves.

By 1981, the group was ready to put their plan into action. Judy Moores officially applied to the Davis School District for the use of a 900-sq. ft. room in the District’s Administration Building. In a decision that catapulted the science center plan into existence, the Davis School District agreed to let the group use the room on a part-time basis. “The Davis School District took a great leap of faith in loaning us use of the space in their district offices,” remembered Hance. “As far as I know, they had no prior history of giving such loans so it was an important step they took for us.”

A diverse group of community members quickly began putting the center together. An official, governing committee was formed from FGT board representatives, scientists and educators. Mark McNamee, a biologist, chaired the
committee and the group began public meetings to invite ideas, comments and suggestions.

The Grand Opening

In April 1982, the Davis Science Center opened as a totally volunteer operation, open afternoons and weekends, in the room on loan from the School District. The grand opening took place with a Spring holiday science program, created by local naturalists, university scientists and community members. The classes were all free and children, ages six to sixteen, had the chance to spend an hour with practicing scientists and naturalists learning about “Lasers,” “Colors and Crystals” and “Squid Anatomy.”

As 1982 progressed, the Davis Science Center began to expand its programs, including public weekend activities, vacation classes for children and a family lecture series. The Center had little money and was run completely on volunteer hours and donations. Security Pacific Foundation gave the Center its first grant — $2,000! —and the Center earned money by offering computer classes to the public for a fee. The Center’s trademark informality owes itself in large part to its early days, when resourcefulness was its most prized asset. Many science experiments were designed from objects salvaged from dumpsters and equipment and books were all donated. Flo Hayes coordinated the exhibits from 1982-83 and Evelyn Buddenhagen, a microbiologist, helped developed the initial rotating programs. Both women were volunteers and brought their rich expertise and background to the fledgling Science Center.

By 1984, the Center was in full swing. Money continued to trickle in from donations and fees charged for computer classes. The Center’s support staff was now paid employees but the executive (Hance), business (Tom Leigh) and program (Buddenhagen) directors were still volunteer positions. There were written employment and job descriptions but no money to support the top-level positions and their 40-hour weeks. Continuing on the strength and commitment of its volunteers, the Center went forward with its plans for expansion.

By 1984, the Center gained exclusive use of the room at the district office. In exchange, the Center provided free services to Davis School District classes. A library started, with donated books, and a comprehensive volunteer manual detailed all the duties and responsibilities for the Center. As a primarily volunteer-run endeavor, organization was essential to its survival.

Establishing Non-profit Status

First Board of DirectorsBy the end of 1983, the Davis Science Center had incorporated as an independent 501(c )(3) non-profit California Corporation and the initial Board of Directors was established with Shelley Booth, Buddenhagen, Hance, McNamee, Moores (not shown), and Kenneth Verosub. Shortly thereafter the composition of the Board was completed with the addition of six more members: Peggy Bowes, Barbara Fall, Della Haller, Dana Richards, and Lois Wolk.

In the same year the S.H. Cowell Foundation awarded the Center a $2,000 grant to purchase items such as an articulated skeleton and an oscilloscope.

The Center expanded its board to 12 members and major fundraising efforts began in 1984. The 1984 board included new members Lars Anderson, Betsy Bencken, William Julian, Della Haller, Leigh, Ogrydziak, Dana Richards, Ethel Sassenrath and Lois Wolk and they organized the Science Center’s first major fundraiser — a soon-to-be annual wine tasting event. In addition to the annual fundraiser, the group devised the first program fee-for-service schedule, initiated a membership campaign and began earnestly to pursue writing grants. The initiatives began to pay off. In 1984, the Institute of Museum Services gave the Science Center an assessment program grant and the exhibit director from the Lawrence Hall of Science described the Center as the best organized and most efficiently run small organization in that reviewer’s extensive experience. By the end of the year, 2,500 people had used the Center’s programs.

As the Center grew, outreach became a broader goal. A regional council was established in 1985 to respond to the greater community’s needs. Responding to the regional need for science outside the Center’s site, Evelyn Buddenhagen conceived of the Science in Your World program, bringing science to students and interested community members throughout the region. Further broadening the Center’s reach, Anne Hance and Cay Pratt organized a series of teacher lecture workshops, called “Science Update,” in partnership with Sacramento City College.

The Center continued to be run in large part by volunteers. Two new community members, Phelan and Laura Fretz, brought their museum expertise and helped develop the “Assembly Program,” designed to bring science experiments and demonstrations to large-size audiences. This program traveled the region to rave reviews and helped raise the number of people served from 2,500 to 8,000 in one year.

1986 ended on a financially upbeat note as a five-year phased plan was drafted, to eventually increase the paid vs. volunteer hours of the Executive and Program directors. By the end of the year, the Center began eyeing a new and larger site for its drop-in Center. Six years earlier the Center had been merely a dream, so how did volunteers transform this idea into a successful non-profit organization? What helped this organization succeed when so many others fall by the wayside? In the next issue, we’ll look at the next 10 years and some of the driving forces behind the Center’s success.

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Explorit Science Center
P.O. Box 1288, Davis, CA 95617, USA
Phone: (530)756-0191     Fax: (530)756-1227