At last, we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, and STEM partners across the state are looking into the spring and summer with optimism and hope. Brent Lubbock, in particular, is excited to witness the museums and science centers in North Carolina flourish and innovate after a long—sometimes quiet, sometimes chaotic—few years.
Lubbock has the unique perspective of serving as both the Director of Operations and Development at Sylvan Heights Bird Park and the Chair of the North Carolina Science Network. He learned first-hand how to face the challenges of the pandemic leading a local science center and how to collaborate with disparate STEM partners throughout the state to take advantage of best practices and creative problem solving in unprecedented times.
“The initial lockdown for COVID was in our absolute busiest time,” says Lubbock. “And suddenly, there were no field trips. No spring break visits. We had to make some hard decisions and get very creative.” Sylvan Heights, for example, worked with Burroughs Welcome Fund, SMT, STEM East, STEMX and NC Inquiry to offer virtual programming.
Many facilities in the state were even more limited in how they could respond, and that’s where NC Science Network stepped in. The Network began as the Grassroots Science Museum Collaborative, whose initial purpose was to join forces to obtain funding, but in recent years has grown to focus more on collaboration and information sharing. “When the pandemic started, each of our members’ challenges were a little different. But, then Discovery Place, for example, would reach out with a great solution they found, and Carolina Raptor Center would run with it,” says Lubbock. They realized that among this group of experts, teachers, scientists, and communicators, someone would have a big idea or clever solution. It simply took COVID to spark this collaboration and communication. As Lubbock says, “We had the resources all along and just weren’t utilizing them.”
Of course, virtual programming became the cornerstone of many of the network members’ focus during the pandemic. The Sylvan Heights Bird Park hosted virtual museum nights allowing teachers, students, and families to navigate the park on-line. The Aurora Fossil Museum packaged fossils and mailed them out to students as a supplement to on-line lessons.
And, Lubbock notes, “There is so much content available now.”
Importantly, all these steps taken as a kind of stopgap during COVID paved the way for sustainable change and real process improvement. COVID forced peers to communicate online—so colleagues who only met in person once a year now Zoom with each other whenever they need help or want to share a success. Families had to settle for a virtual tour because they were locked down—but now that the doors are open, they’re making plans for a real-life visit because that seed has been planted.
Now that doors are opening again, what does Lubbock think is the #1 priority? “We’ve got to get the hands-on stuff back. Telescopes to birds to rocks,” says Lubbock, noting that people have “virtual fatigue” and are craving real experiences where they can get their hands dirty and just be out in the world again, doing, seeing, touching, and learning. “There was definitely a push toward science education before COVID. Because that all stopped during the lockdown, kids are really craving it now. There’s a want,” says Lubbock. “A need to engage with science and nature.” And the NC Science Network members are ready to oblige!
Lubbock wants to remind visitors that challenges still exist. Staffing, connectivity in rural areas, shaping a hybrid virtual/in-person programming, and maintaining safety will continue to challenge each center and museum, but Lubbock is hopeful that such issues will continue to inspire innovation and growth.
“We hope people will be understanding that we’re working through these challenges, but we’re doing the best job we can in each of our facilities to give them a great science experience! Our doors are open!”
About the North Carolina Science Network
The NC Science Network connects, unifies, strengthens, and champions museums and allied organizations throughout North Carolina to enrich the lives of North Carolina’s citizens by engaging with science. Visit https://explorencscience.com/.