The Davis Science Center Story
Some thoughts on
The Beginning, Creation, Style, Purpose, Direction
It was in 1979 that the idea was conceived. There
were five of us, Anne Hance, Judy Moores, Maria Ogrydziak, Cay Pratt, and Sherry
Venezia drinking our choices of coffee or tea in a comfortable living room, the
pale sun streaming through the windows and dancing on the polished
"I do believe we could make it work. I was involved in a
similar thing when I was a teenager and could write to them to see if they
published anything about their founding and how they actually went about
"OK, I agree, but what sort of place are we talking about
Thin wisps of steam, caught in the sunlight, rose from
the cups and the five women watched them idly as they sorted out their thoughts
about this next venture they were considering.
"Smallish, I think. Not big like the Exploratorium or the
Lawrence Hall of Science.
"Right, and different from the Sacramento Junior Museum.
This should involve all sciences and somehow be able to let people find out how
science is part of all of our everyday lives."
"It needs to be sort of informal - casual - quiet - a
friendly place that anyone , any age, any background will feel comfortable
We could start it in a garage. Anyone here have a garage
No one did. The conversation drifted on to other things
and then we went our ways, but the seed was sown.
We wanted people to discover that science is interesting to
think about as an everyday sort of thing. We wanted people to have continuing -
weekly or monthly - opportunities to do things and learn about things that are
science and are basically worth knowing because the knowledge makes life richer,
more meaningful. We wanted people to learn such things by finding out for
themselves in practical ways because this sort of learning is more interesting
and more lasting. We wanted people to discover how to know about things that
would make them better guardians of their own lives and their world.
We were all busy people with full days so several months went
by before we talked about this again. Now there were three of us, Anne, Judy
and Maria. The other two were interested but not so involved. We had the
brochure from the museum that Judy (a biologist and a teacher) had worked in as
a teenager. It had some inspiring things to say and we were encouraged. We
talked more about what we wanted this place to do for people. About what it had
to be like if it was to have these certain effects.
Maria smiled, "What I think would be great would be if we
could have several big tubs of stuff that people could investigate and
experiment with. They could do it right there - in the garage. But if they
want to take home what they have been working on, they'll have to bring
something to put in the tubs to replace what they take out. It wouldn't have to
be the same."
It was the Fall of 1980. Maria (an architect) designed a
simple, three-fold brochure prospectus and, in the local paper, we announced
several daytime and evening coffees. People came to all the coffees and we
listened to their ideas. Now, rationalizations and supporting arguments for the
idea were born.
We all belonged to a local non-profit corporation dedicated
to educational enrichment and, using this organization as a parent organization,
at Anne's suggestion we formally applied to the Davis School District for the
use of a room in the District's Administration Building in the center of
In late Fall 1981 the Davis School District said "yes" to the
use of the room. Suddenly in the Winter of '81 Judy, Anne, and Maria were caught
up in a whirlwind of activity.
A committee was formed. More publicity. More input.
In April 1982 The Davis Science Center was born. It
opened its doors to 300 people, adults and children, during the Spring
Scientists from the local University campus (faculty, staff
and graduate students) and local naturalists helped to create a special sort of
Spring holiday, extra-curricular science program. Children from ages six to
sixteen met for an hour at a time with practicing scientists and naturalists.
They learned about things that were happening in the University labs and were
introduced to materials, equipment and ideas that opened their eyes to the
world of science and to the lives of scientists. Parents too were
participants in several of the sessions.
"Lasers," "Colors and Crystals," "Squid Anatomy" ... kids and
their parents lined up at the door. Kindergartners to tenth graders responded to
the exciting science programs. The classes were free.
Later, a monthly lecture series which met sometimes at the
Center and sometimes on campus provided adults and older children with different
experiences and information not otherwise available to them. Dr. Tom Cahill
presented "Gutenberg Meets the Cyclotron", Dr. Norm Gary let us into the secrets
of "Bees," Dr. Steve Hsia opened up his lab for a presentation on
Now reality loomed. This was a real thing we had created.
This was in truth something wonderful, ambitious, challenging. The Davis
Science Center was an exciting, new and different way to involve people in
science. Its small size was seen as important - it was a personal place. Its
informality was a trademark - we collected stuff from dumpsters and created
opportunities for people to do science by investigating, experimenting,
observing, but above all questioning and thinking.
A wonderful aspect of these first years was the
interest and commitment of the people who helped to create the Center. All of
them were volunteers. They came from all walks of life and each brought a
different quality or skill. They brought to the adventure a spirit of
excellence, the joy of sharing science and a commitment to education. Each one
left an indelible mark.
An exhilarating mix of ebullient enthusiasm, creativity,
previous experience in a small museum, and inexhaustible energy blew into the
Science Center's life in 1982, stayed for a bit more than a year, and fixed
herself firmly in all of our hearts. This was Flo Hayes who was the one who
taught us about "dumpster-runs" to collect invaluable materials from which she
created simple, hands-on science activities dealing with complex concepts. Flo
was our Coordinator before we had a formal staff structure. She worked for free
of course as everyone did.
Mark McNamee, the first President of the Board and Professor
of Biochemistry, helped to more clearly define the philosophy and direction for
the new center. Anne and Judy, both members of the Board, continued to influence
philosophy and worked in very practical ways in the developing programs to
establish their structure and style. Maria remained involved and was the
driving force behind the purposeful, organized development of a detailed
building prospectus which became part of the Science Center's Central Park
Master Plan submitted to the City of Davis in 1985.
Meanwhile, Evelyn Buddenhagen, also a member of the Board
(and its first Vice President) became an integral, creative part of program
development. After Flo had moved to the Bay Area, Evelyn was the leader of a
"Drop-In Committee" which designed and developed the public Sunday afternoon
programs. But Evelyn gradually became the driving force behind a different style
of drop-in program. She developed the first truly innovative basic program of
the Davis Science Center.
"Oh, it's so hard to remember," Evelyn reminisced recently
looking back over her years of hard work. "I did Teeth Day and Health Day, and
Mosquitos." Each program in those days lasted only for one afternoon, such a
lot of effort for so brief an opportunity so rich in ideas! History and art
and culture all integrated into informal, family experiences in
"When I was thinking about Teeth Day, I kept asking myself
questions about what can be learned about teeth. I discovered that I had learned
about teeth at all sorts of different times. My knowledge was quite scattered. I
thought how much fun it would be to put all the different pieces and types of
information together into a program. All sorts of things had to be integrated.
There was anthropology, anatomy, zoology, health, and so on.
"Things really jelled with the Tomato program in 1984. There
was the art aspect, of course, that appealed to me. Then history, the history
of the tomato. This meant cultural things and trade. And botany and genetics -
the evolution of the modern tomato plant - chemistry, nutrition, pathology. We
had tomato plants and Charles Rick helped and then graduate students from Veg
Crops and Plant Pathology came and talked with visitors and showed tomato pests
and diseases. Then there was the technology. Everyone tested the viscosity of
tomato paste using apparatus from the UCD campus. And it was all set out simply
and informally on the tables for people to investigate."
Under Evelyn's guiding hand in those early days we very soon
forged bonds with many individuals and departments on the university campus. To
make the exchange of ideas and resources 'legal' we established formal
agreements between the University and the Science Center but the contacts that
made the most difference to the development of the Center were all by personal
"Lars Anderson? He's my boss. I'm sure he'd like to do
something for the science center. I'll talk to him and then you call him, OK?"
Shelley, talking in 1983 about an aquatic weed scientist, introduced to the
Center an energetic botanist destined to become a board member and then
President of the Board for five years.
The bonds between the Davis School District and the Science
Center were strong from the very beginning. The people involved in the founding
of the Center were well-known throughout the District for their work in the
schools and for education in general. The Trustees and Administration of the
School District showed admirable insight and foresight by encouraging and
supporting this grass-roots effort before the subject of science literacy
/illiteracy was being so much talked about. In the end the Davis School
District would provide facility space for the Center for more than seven years.
It was a school inquiry in 1985 that led to the
development of the next innovative, unique program. A rural school in Solano
County called to say that they were hungry for science. What could we do for
them? Evelyn's brow wrinkled and her eyes roamed around the Center. "We'll
take the Center to them since we are too small for them to come to
We called it "Science In Your World" and for three years
Evelyn and Anne went two or three times a month to the far reaches of Solano,
Yolo, and Sacramento Counties with Anne's huge Suburban station wagon and
Evelyn's tiny VW Rabbit loaded with the contents of the Center's storage
cupboards. We would set up in the late afternoon in a school auditorium. Twenty or more tables would be draped with yellow, blue, red, and brown cloths and what we then called exhibits, but now call explorits™, were set out ready to be explored by the hundreds of eager hands that would crowd into the hall during the evening.
Evelyn always augmented the storage-cupboard-contents with
specially chosen parts of the varied weekend Drop-in Programs and Anne gained a
tremendous amount of enjoyment out of creating new explorits™ with
colorful, simple backdrops and activities designed to intrigue, inform and allow
thoughtful 'hands-on' investigation. Later, with a grant from the Sierra
Foundation, Dana Richards, board member since 1983, an epidemiologist vitally
interested in science education, spearheaded a Human Body project with the
creation of handsome carrels and activities that also went on the road with the
Science In Your World.
Sometimes we had people to help us set up, but usually were
not joined by our helpers until about 6:00 p.m. Then we would find a quiet
corner, open up the baskets miraculously produced by Evelyn, and feast on a
delicious gourmet meal that she had somehow conjured up. The meal and the
camaraderie of the group set the tone for a spirited evening. Our helpers would
generally be faculty from the University of California Davis who delighted in
this opportunity to share their knowledge and enthusiasm informally with the
families who showed so much interest and appreciation during the
The regular involvement with practicing scientists as
resources and as integral parts of programs, the weekend "Discovery Days",
the associated weekday "Discovery Lessons", and the "Science In
Your World" are the hallmark of this Center. Created with volunteer
enthusiasm and dedication, they are unique.
Anticipating the need to fund the building which was
designed for Central Park by Maria in 1984, a preliminary Capital Campaign was
initiated in 1985 after a special workshop by a United Way volunteer.
The Board was in the midst of a regular meeting at 525 C
Street. The sun was shining but the windows faced north so no dancing rays
lightened the mood at the table.
The carpet was still damp from the soaking it
had received the previous weekend when the rain found easy access into the room
through a hole or two in the roof, down the walls, into the cupboards of
materials and equipment and onto the floor to a depth of three inches!
Barefooted Board members, staff and volunteers had spent six hours soaking up
the standing water, spreading things out to dry.
"We have to think of the future. I suggest that we arrange to
have someone from United Way come to teach us about how to raise funds for our
building." Anne looked around the table. People sat somewhat glumly smelling the
damp odors emanating from the carpets.
Judy nodded, "There has been such a great response to our
programs it is obvious that we are meeting a need out there. And, remember, we
can't just stay in this room at 525 C Street for ever. I agree ... we have to
think of the future. There's a good chance the City Council will agree to
allowing us to be on Central Park."
There were differences of opinion but we did have a United
Way workshop. We did initiate a small campaign of pledges. These pledges paid
for much of the planning that occurred over the next five years as hopes and
dreams, board and staff, policies and procedures evolved. The City Council did
approve the presence of the Davis Science Center in Central Park and after a
year or so of political maneuvering by developers and a local environmental
movement calling itself "Save Open Space", the Center signed a City lease for a
site for its building on the Southeast corner of the City park. Now all that
remained was to raise sufficient funds to design and construct the
The design phase came first. This was an exhilarating period.
First the RFP (Request For Proposals) was sent out to dozens of architects. Then
the responding architects were interviewed and their preliminary designs
evaluated. This was FUN! Eventually Dean Unger was chosen and he and his
colleague Larry Diminyatz worked with us to produce a series of conceptual
drawings all for a 12,000 square feet building to be set on the south east
corner of Central Park. This entire project and its sequel was orchestrated
with finesse by Dana who, with several others, has dedicated a large portion of
her life to the Davis Science Center. The major fund raising effort came a
By late summer 1986 the Center had relocated from 525
C Street to a large classroom in a West Davis school. Two new people were now
part of the staff. Phelan Fretz and his wife Laura had come to study at the
University. One of the things they did on their first day in Davis was to drop
by the science center to see how they could be involved. Phelan had worked for
several years at the Philadelphia Academy for Natural Sciences and Laura had
worked at the Boston Children's Museum. They brought new professionalisms, new
programs and new understandings. Phelan's energy, experience, and commitment
brought the Davis Science Center to a higher stage of development. He
instituted a program of assemblies similar in style to the ones he had run in
Philadelphia. They helped increase the center's audience in numbers and in
geographical range by more than fifty percent.
Almost everyone had volunteered their time for the first few
years. The computer programming teachers had been paid and some of the vacation
class teachers were too. Now, Phelan and Laura were paid for the assembly
programs they designed and ran, but the business of managing the daily running
of the center remained largely a voluntary joy for about eight years.
In 1985, a phased program which instituted gradual payment of
salaries for management staff over a five-year period was adopted. Because they
were now to be paid for one or two of the forty hours they worked each week,
Anne and Evelyn sadly stepped down in 1986 from the Board. They felt that there
was an intrinsic conflict in being Board members as well as paid staff. Anne
became the Executive Director responsible for the overall management of the
daily operations of the Center. Evelyn became the Program Director, responsible
for all purpose-related programs. By 1991, as the phased program was completed,
the Center had come close to paying appropriate salaries and wages.
The make-up of the Board of Directors gradually
changed. This was an inevitable metamorphosis from an original, small
governing committee, to a six member initial corporate board, to a twelve member
board of involved, participatory members. The board continued its evolution in
1986 by developing more diversity which was representative of the increasing
numbers of clients and the expanded geographical range of the Center's programs.
Business people and community leaders who did not necessarily have science
backgrounds were invited to join the board.
"I'd like to nominate Tom Frankel to the Board; he's an
attorney. I don't know that he has any science background but I think this
project will interest him and he'd be a real asset. He's well known in Davis.
He's been on non-profit boards before."
Tom joined the Board in April 1986, became Vice President in
1987 and then was President for two years. Under his leadership the programs
flourished and grew and the Board expanded from a maximum of sixteen to a
maximum of thirty-two members and became a more representative group with an
expected annual financial commitment.
This change in the character of the Board became more
aggressive under the guidance of a fund-raising consultant who encouraged us to
create a board of directors representing the Center's geographical service
region in addition to the original representation of the general Davis
community, scientists, educators and business people.
The Davis Science Center was growing up!
In 1987 Anne and Evelyn decided that the time had come to
start networking with people who had experience in developing and designing
science centers. They visited with senior designer Linda Kulik of the California
Academy of Sciences, and then with design staff at the Oakland Museum. These
were revealing visits and we learned a great deal about the philosophies,
policies and procedures of these places. Evelyn continued to expand the network
of communication with other museums and centers and with museum-world and
Meanwhile, Anne started phoning around the U.S. and talking
to museum directors and designers: Grant Flinn of the Ontario Science Center,
Joseph Wetzel of a design firm in Boston, Phil Aldrich of Vancouver, Drew Ann
Wake also of Vancouver, and eventually, Tomas Ancona of San Francisco. Drew
Ann Wake proved to be a real kindred spirit and we would have loved to involve
her in the development of our plans for a permanent place and style. But Canada
was too far away. However, Drew Ann did play a significant part in our life when
she introduced us to the Science Alberta Foundation and brought them to see us.
This resulted in our being chosen as a model for a style of community science
center planned for development throughout the province of Alberta.
Tom Ancona also played a significant part in our future which
started when Anne invited him to speak at the February 1990 Annual General
By now there had appeared on the scene a focus of
enterprising energy and commitment that we hadn't experienced since the days at
525 C Street when Flo was with us. Cherie Porter, outspoken, fearless, and
deeply interested in providing worthwhile learning experiences for children,
became a member of the Board in mid 1987. She committed herself to the Center's
future by throwing her energies
wholeheartedly into helping the DSC to move ahead. She took on
a heavy load of responsibility by working tirelessly at "fund raising through
friend raising" in company with Judy and under the guidance of consultant Terry
Now the outlook of the Board and the direction of
the institution began to change.
A leap forward happened as Lars, stepping back into a
leadership position in February 1990, became president for a fourth term. Within
a month of taking office he was responsible, with Cherie's help, for hiring
museum designer Ancona.
Ancona, working with Cherie and a small committee of board
and staff, produced a visionary conceptual plan for the exhibitry for the
planned building. This design was executed, both as a visually exciting brochure
and as a professional scale model. These clearly advanced the vision of this
science center well beyond the original dreams.
Cherie was in large part responsible for the change in
outlook that had the Center positioning itself not just as a science center
serving a wide region with its own rather unusual brand of informal science
programs, but as a prominent, regional center of a stature that the founders had
not envisioned. Originally intended for the Dean Unger-designed building on
Central Park, the exhibit plan became the blueprint for the exhibitry for a fine
new Unger-designed building to occupy three acres of land received as a gift
from a regional development group.
As the Center's direction began to change it became important
for the Board to take the time to look at and assess the changes. So in November
1990, we organized a second Board retreat. (The first had been held in 1987 in
the Frankel cabin in South Lake Tahoe. It had been a good, team-building,
The setting was very pleasant. Randy Sater, Vice President,
had arranged for us to use space in the Teichert building overlooking the
American River. The day was bright and dry. Standing on the balcony enjoying
the light breeze during one of the breaks the conversations continued.
"Well, I do think our strength is in our informal, personal
style. I mean that we involve people in a more personal way by being informal."
Tom leaned back against the railings.
"Our style is critical. The thing is, the way in which we are
different matters. The Exploratorium and places like that are wonderful
but the style we've developed - I hate to sound corny but - well, it's
'user-friendly' don't you think? "
"Well, you know, I don't have a science background and I
never dreamed I'd have anything to do with anything like this, but I think this
science center is very special. I hear the teachers who bring their classes say
how great it is, and I hear the kids talking about how they are going to try
some of the stuff they've done at the Center when they get home".
"And the families who come at the weekends. Just watching the
parents becoming interested and then intrigued and then involved -- when they
thought they'd just come so their kids could learn something - it's great!"
It was almost exactly a year later that the first staff
retreat was held. It was an all-day affair at Dana's lovely farmhouse home
surrounded by fields and trees just outside Davis. Comforted by the pleasant
setting and encouraged by supportive camaraderie, all fourteen members of the
staff attended the retreat.
This was a thoughtful and thought provoking day. The staff
dealt with such questions as, What is the Davis Science Center and what should
it be? What is the Explorit™ philosophy of the Center? Why Explorit™
and not Exhibit?
"It's quite hard to be a new staff person at this place.
There's nothing most people will have ever done that really prepares them to
work here. If you've been a teacher, you have to re-think how you interact with
kids. We don't really teach. If you've worked in another science center or a
museum, your ideas are all wrong because this place does things differently from
anywhere! And if you haven't been a teacher or worked in another science center
or museum, you haven't a chance of understanding what this place is about until
you've been here at least a year!"
"Yes. When I first came here, I thought I understood the
philosophy and it really appealed to me. Well, I did sort of understand, but
it's harder to do and much more complex than I dreamed it would be. I'm only
now getting the hang of it. There is a lot of research and intellectual
planning that has to go into each program. But you know, it's worth it. I
believe that what we do is really worthwhile."
"I love what I do. I really do. If I can, I'll be the person
that Anne has been waiting for who says their career goal is to work for the
Davis Science Center. I think what we do here is really special!"
The atmosphere was supportive and the voices around the table
were full of energy. While working for the Davis Science Center was hard work
and the crowded working conditions often made things difficult, everyone felt
that the purposes we were working to achieve were worthwhile.
The last part of the staff retreat was spent thinking about
the new word explorit™ and how it illustrates the particular style that
the DSC has adopted. A big roll of butcher paper mounted on a wooden frame so
that it would unroll smoothly, was placed at one end of Dana's huge dining
table. A streamer of paper was then unrolled from one end of the table to the
other and, armed with crayons of many colors, the staff vented their
intellectual creativity in devising apt phrases to describe how the word
Explorit™ exemplifies the Davis Science Center philosophy and
"PLEASE DO TOUCH!! and don't just touch,
Explorit™. Get in there and mess with it!""
"Explorit™ - just do it! Don't just look. Find your own
answer! Compare your answer with others."
"Explorits™ are the way to science. How else do we
really learn but by doing, by taking the time on our own to discover something?
Exhibits are for museums!"
The Davis Science Center has become the Davis Regional
Science Center. Programs reach fifty thousand people a year and extend into
a twenty-county region. The Center has established an informal style that is
unique among science centers. The Center's purposes are still as defined by the
founders but the traveling outreach to underserved communities exceeds the
Our fourteen energetic, professional staff members are now
paid. Dedicated volunteers are still involved in all aspects of our
functioning. The Board has grown from six to twenty-seven trustees, all of whom
contribute $1000 in personal funds each year.
The Center has an international reputation as a result of its
association with a Canadian designer; and its informal style of programming was
chosen as a model for small, community science centers being developed in
The Science Alliance has been launched by the Center's Board
as a regional force to improve funding for informal science in Northern
The Center will be ten years old in April 1992!
What will the next ten years bring?
Anne Hance, December, 1991
With my apologies to the many people who made important
contributions during these first ten years but whose names are not mentioned.
Your mark is on our progress and your names are not forgotten.
This story - because it is a short story - omits specific
mention of some very significant things including: the considerable amount of
community support for the center; the encouragement and support given by the
school-board members, city council members and city staff; visits by world
famous scientists (Richard Leakey, Jean Michel Cousteau, Francis Crick); honors
and awards; business and corporate support; gifts from community members - the
list goes on and on.
In March 1992, after several years of discussion, the Davis
Science Center Board chose a new fictious business name - EXPLORIT! - which is
the name given to the center's hands-on activities. Then, in June - another new
home! With a five year lease from the City, and an option for five more, the
Mace ranch house became EXPLORIT's! fourth home. It took $100,000 from the State
and more than that amount in donated services and materials to remodel and bring
the building up to code but it was the beginning of a new era. In honor of this,
Anne Hance announced her intention of retiring in June 1993 to make way for new
staff leadership with special expertise in fund raising and finances.