Easton science center trying to stay alive after endowment collapse

Posted Sept. 08, 2015, at 2:20 p.m.

EASTON, Maine — Since 1983, more than 100,000 people raised in northern Maine and New Brunswick have visited the Francis Malcolm Science Center, a free resource for schools and the community that’s now on the brink of closure.

Home to a natural history museum, planetarium and small forest where students can explore, the Francis Malcolm Science Center is a sort of Smithsonian museum of Aroostook County, said Larry Berz, an educator at the center who also teaches astronomy and history at the nearby Maine School of Science and Mathematics.

“We’re trying to share the universe,” said Berz. “We present not just an archive but a method.”

The Francis Malcolm Science Center offers students a chance to “learn on their own the methods of science, through purposeful scrutiny, first-hand discovery and learning,” said Berz, a native of suburban Chicago who came to work at the center in 1988.

Semi-structured lessons on tree science let pre-K, first- and second-grade students hold and look at roots, stems, bark and leaves and walk through the trails of a mixed forest on the east side of Route 1A.

This “interactive experimentation fuels a sense of wonder in children and in adults, too,” Berz said. “It’s how children best learn and engage with science.”

Berz, the planetarium director, offers multidisciplinary programing such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” about how slaves and Underground Railroad volunteers used the Big Dipper star pattern to navigate escape from the South to Canada.

If the worst-case financial scenario turns out to be true for the Francis Malcolm Science Center, those kinds of educational experiences could become rare for the children of Aroostook, or possibly confined to a digital presentation, Berz fears. The center’s original roughly $1.5 million endowment has run dry after 32 years, done in largely by the Great Recession’s damage to small investment funds.

After investing more than two decades of his passion for science with the center, Berz is trying to save it, seeking out support from institutions and the general public in an attempt to raise $1.5 million. About $125,000 is needed annually to pay for two full-time educators, an administrator and maintenance. So far, the center has raised about $92,000, but it will still close in January “unless we realize the necessary endowment restoration and/or operational annual needs,” Berz said.

Along with the collapse of the endowment’s wealth, Berz believes a factor in the center’s financial struggles has been a lack of contributions from local school districts, which are themselves dealing with budget woes.

“We made the decision early on to offer all of our programming without charge to the schools of The County,” Berz said. “That’s come back to haunt us now.”

The center also has missed major philanthropic grants as well.

“We’ve applied to the King Foundation, the Libra Foundation, the Next Gen Foundation, and we just keep falling a little bit short here, a little bit short there, and we’ve fallen through the cracks,” Berz said.

Though they still have a long way to go, Berz is optimistic that some local banks will be able to come through with potential funding sources.

“The County cares about its children,” Berz said. “Francis Malcolm cared even more so because of the nature of his youth.”

Malcolm was born in 1894 on a farm in Easton, but his parents died when he was still growing up. He and his sister were raised by other families in the community, and he left town to study at the former Ricker College in Houlton and Cornell University in New York. Malcolm then spent more than 20 years as a school administrator in Vermont, briefly worked in Alaska and then visited California, where he decided to retire and invest in real estate.

Malcolm earned a small fortune in California’s bustling, post-World War II economy. When he died in 1977, unmarried and without children, he left his 400-acre family farm in Easton and a $1.5 million endowment to create a “facility to the benefit of County kids,” with one idea being a home for parentless children, Berz said.

But the board set up in his wake “morphed the original intent from a boy’s home to a science center” focused on agriculture, said Berz. “Lucky for me and a lot of others, there were superintendents at the time who decided to expand to create an overarching science center, and then raised the possibility of inserting a planetarium.”

Although Malcolm’s passion was with quality education broadly (and later real estate) and not science or astronomy specifically, “I think he would have liked me,” Berz said.

Berz grew up during the space race of the 1960s and became enthralled with astronomy. In 1972, his family traveled to Prince Edward Island to see the total solar eclipse. Today, Berz lives what is in some ways an astronomer’s dream. He directs northern Maine’s only planetarium — the only planetarium some people raised in Aroostook will ever visit — and can gaze through some of the clearest, darkest skies on the East Coast.

“I’m never bored,” he said.

On sunny days in late August, Berz looks through one of his homemade telescopes to find Venus. During the winter, he and others at the center take members of the public on nighttime snowshoe walks.

The Francis Malcolm Center’s planetarium is using relatively old analog technology that may not inspire children accustomed to action-packed video games on tablet computers or TV screens.

If sustainable funding is found, though, Berz wants to install a new, $40,000 digital projector for the 24-foot dome planetarium and expand the seating to 45. He’s hoping that an open house and demo for the digital presenter in October will help drum up interest.

In the meantime, with or without the new projector, Berz is trying to make sure that the Francis Malcolm Science Center will be open in the spring for field trips and for the next several decades, as a new generation grows up.

“What kind of kid do we want to see in The County in the next 50 years?” Berz wonders, mulling the current emphasis nationally on STEM education, science, technology, engineering and math. “We see the possibility of science sliding into a tiny fragment of ‘know it alls’ who have no organic connection with the rest of the population.”

As an adjunct to today’s standardized, classroom-based education, the Francis Malcolm Science Center helps students “learn by doing,” said Vaughn Martin, a fifth-grade science teacher at Teague Park School in Caribou, citing the Chinese proverb “show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

“Science is something you have to experience; you have to do science,” Martin said. “You have to learn to love it. If all you do is read about it and hear about it, you don’t instill that deep love that you do when you play, experiment and explore.”

 

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