Professor shares passion at PI science museum

Posted April 03, 2010, at 6:27 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:31 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When he was in second grade, Kevin McCartney walked into a New Jersey natural science museum with no idea of what science was or meant, but that’s all it took.

“I think that’s where my interest in science came from,” the University of Maine at Presque Isle professor of geology said. “It was 20 years later I figured out what a science museum was but in that first trip I learned there was something called science that had all those neat things that go with it.”

Today McCartney and a group of dedicated UMPI faculty and staff hope to pass on that passion for all things science through the Northern Maine Museum of Science housed in the campus’ Folsom Hall.

“It’s unusual to see a rural science museum associated with a university,” McCartney said. “We are able to integrate our students into the place.”

Rather than occupy a wing or series of rooms, the Northern Maine Museum of Science displays cover the walls and hang from the ceilings of Folsom Hall.

“The museum uses the hallways [and] that’s where the students are,” McCartney said. “If it was in a separate building there would probably be people who work on this campus who would never see it.”

The concept of a museum on the campus first was raised in the early 1970s but work did not formally being until 1992 with opening day on Oct. 5, 1996.

In 1999, museum staff began work on the scale model solar system stretching from campus to Houlton along U.S. Route 1, the largest such model in this hemisphere.

The museum itself has four major components with on-site displays, a herbarium with 20,000 documented species, 200 acres of natural areas and trails and a library of educational traveling trunks for outreach work.

“Everything we do is through volunteer efforts,” McCartney said. “It’s a real labor of love.”

All of the displays — including the giant solar system — were created through volunteer efforts and donations.

Even though the museum is housed in a center of formal education, McCartney said the best teaching moments come during informal sessions with students.

“I think people are inspired by what they see outside the classroom,” he said. “Students gain much more when they discover things on their own and a museum is a great place to do that.”

Every display in the museum, McCartney said, has a story.

The soil profile display, for example, grew out of McCartney’s desire to show off the different levels and types of soil covering Aroostook County.

“I contacted the state soil people figuring they would know how to best collect and display the profile,” he said. “They said they would look into it and get back to me.”

After the state soil officials chose Chesuncook soil to profile, they not only produced a display piece for the museum, but also ended up naming the soil type Maine’s official soil.

“All that started with a question for help with a display,” McCartney said.

Other items in the display — such as the giant leatherback tortoise — are remnants from the old Portland Museum of Natural History.

Exhibits explaining time, space, the metric system, mapping, geology and natural history line the walls, hang from the ceiling or are tucked into the corners of stairwells.

One of the more popular displays is titled “Infinity.”

Visitors stand in a hallway between two mirrors that reflect their image in an endless row.

“I had the idea for this and stopped by Portland Glass to see if they could help me out,” McCartney said. “It was here and up the next day.”

In another display a preserved hammerhead shark swims above a mural of a Florida Keys coral reef created by an UMPI student.

Since the museum has no staffing beyond the dozen or so volunteers, McCartney encourages visitors to take advantage of self-guided tours with accompanying guidebooks.

“But I’m always happy to show people around,” he added. “We are here for the students and the community.”

There is a steady stream of school children passing through the halls during the year, most ending up in McCartney’s geology lab where touching is the rule.

“Our philosophy is not simply displaying things but to use those displays to explain concepts,” McCartney said. “When a student comes back in after exploring something on their own and then tells me about it, I can see the light bulbs go off.”

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