Volunteers help inspire young scientists

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Lee Ann N. Brownlee

Nick Brown visits Northern Virginia elementary schools in the Children’s Science Center mobile lab to help instill an interest in science. The center places several hundred volunteers in its preschool and elementary school programs, but continues to need additional volunteers.
Photo Courtesy of The Children's Science

If you ask Richard “Nick” Brown when he first discovered his love of science and math, he quickly replies, “I grew up on a farm. Nature was everywhere, and it’s natural to be a scientist. Scientists — they want to know everything about everything.

It’s all about the frontier of knowledge.” Brown has been a pioneer in the frontier of science. The author of 200 scientific and government publications and three books, Brown earned a Ph.D. in environmental science at the University of Delaware in 1969.

That year, he invented what is known as the “Brown funnel” —a device he designed with oil cloth to separate insects from leaf litter. It is used to help investigate the breakdown of molecular matter in an ecosystem

Now retired, Brown, 75, continues to spread his passion for science, technology, engineering and math (commonly referred to as STEM subjects) to young students and their parents as a volunteer for the Children’s Science Center in Northern Virginia.

Taking science on the road

The center doesn’t have a permanent location yet, but takes mobile labs to family science nights at 40 schools across the region, inspiring students to explore and be inspired by STEM through hands-on learning.

Brown said the excitement is palpable as children discover the science around them.

“I’ve seen the awe and the wonder that the parents are catching from watching their kids collectively,” Brown said. “You have kids at one project and then other kids at other projects and they’re all going, ‘Awesome! Wow! That’s great!’

“And the parents get caught up in that, and it becomes a lifetime activity with the kids and their parents. That won’t go away.”

Brown said the most rewarding part is the family engagement. “The parents, from then on, will be involved in their kids’ scientific curiosity, and that’s what it’s all about.”

The Children’s Science Center’s goal is to create a world-class hands-on STEM museum for children in the next five years in the Dulles Technology Corridor.

“This museum we’re looking to build is not stagnant, and that’s what’s exciting to me. It’s really dynamic, with kids being able to touch and feel and use exhibits that would be of the highest quality and caliber.”

Brown is energized as he talks of the packed school buses he envisions rolling into this amazing new museum. But he knows it will take lots of hard work, primarily from volunteers and donors in this region, to make it a reality.

Many volunteers; more needed

The Children’s Science Center runs on volunteer power. More than 250 active volunteers touch every facet of the organization. They serve on working committees, and engage and inspire children at Mobile Labs Family Science Nights, new preschool programs, and various STEM events throughout the year.

While the organization has expanded its mobile labs offerings by 150 percent in 2013, the popularity of this program and high demand from schools led to a lottery to select the 40 schools to visit. That meant 30 schools had to be turned away.

”Our region’s families, educators and children are hungry for fun, hands-on STEM learning,” said Nene Spivy, executive director. “While we are fortunate to have many volunteers, having regular, highly-dedicated volunteers like Nick, makes all the difference in our efforts to grow our programs and build the future museum. Volunteers are essential to ensure we can make these experiences accessible to all of the children in our region.”

Currently, the Children’s Science Center has a working partnership with RSVP-Northern Virginia, a regional volunteer program that is sponsored by Volunteer Fairfax, Volunteer Arlington, and Volunteer Alexandria.

RSVP is part of Senior Corps — a national program that matches individuals age 55+ in meaningful volunteer opportunities at local nonprofits and agencies that meet critical community needs.

Brown, who has also volunteered for Reston Interfaith (now Cornerstones) and was named Reston Citizens Association’s Citizen of the Year, has a natural tendency to help and volunteer.

But he emphasizes that you don’t need a scientific degree or an abundance of time or money to help with this project; you just need a passion for helping kids. “I like to help people. That’s what I live for,” he said.

Upcoming information sessions

If you are interested in learning more about volunteering with the Children’s Science Center, attend one of these upcoming information sessions (called “virtual tours”):

Tuesday, Jan. 14, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.

Wednesday, Jan. 22, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Tuesday, Feb. 11, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.

Wednesday, Feb. 19, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.

The tours take place in Herndon, Virginia. For location details and to register, email imagine@thechildrenssciencecenter.org or call (703) 648-3130. To learn more about the organization, visit www.childsci.org. Lee Ann N. Brownlee is a board member of the Children’s Science Center.