ScienceWorks sees strong growth in tough times

While some local businesses and nonprofits struggle to keep afloat in the flailing economy, ScienceWorks' membership has grown 24 percent through July 1 compared to last year at the same time.

"It's a combination of things," ScienceWorks Executive Director Mark DiRienzo said. "We're doing more for our members and our programs are hitting a wider range of people."

Since DiRienzo became director 18 months ago, the museum has added programs and events and made more efficient use of the building at 1500 E. Main St.

The museum saw 42,000 visitors on site last year, including 8,000 who came from more than 50 miles away, helping to justify tourism money given to the center from the city of Ashland. Counting outreach programs — mainly to schools and fairs in Southern Oregon — 59,000 people were exposed to science through the museum last year.

"A big percentage of our visitors come from outside Ashland, even though a lot of people perceive us as an Ashland thing," DiRienzo said.

The basic costs of running ScienceWorks on a daily basis — keeping the doors open and the lights on — stay about the same, whether it's a regular day with kids hopping from one exhibit to another or a special event with activities in each room. To make the best use of the space, DiRienzo has increased the number of scheduled events, such as the shows in the science theater that previously had been put on just for visiting tour groups. Each weekend the theater now hosts live science-themed presentations examining chemical reactions, fire safety, the states of matter and other topics.

"People want scheduled events," he said.

In the future, DiRienzo plans to do even more of those types of activities, and there are plans afoot to create an in-house, permanent planetarium.

"Weathering this economic crisis has been just brutal for nonprofits," DiRienzo said. "But there are times when expansion makes the most sense."

Other recent additions include an outdoor climbing wall where kids can scramble across the geologic periods of Earth's history, exercising their bodies as well as their minds, and a solar-powered water filtration and irrigation display in the large outdoor geodesic dome in front of ScienceWorks.

Using solar power to run air pumps and water pumps, the dome features pipes that carry Talent Irrigation District water to a cistern attached to the top of the dome. Water is then regularly released to containers with wetland plants from the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, which does local projects to rebuild the health of local forests and wetlands. The plants grow and filter the water. At the same time, the solar air pumps aerate the water, also helping to keep it clean. When the plants are mature, Lomakatsi uses them in replanting projects.

"Using the power of the sun you can clean water and irrigate on a regular schedule," DiRienzo said.

DiRienzo lays much of the credit for the increase in membership to a new push for families and very young children through the museum's preschool family network. The network was created at the same time as the new Discover Island exhibit, which has activities designed for crawlers, toddlers and very young children — kids who in the past didn't have much to do at ScienceWorks. The network also serves as a way for young parents to learn about child development and share experiences.

"We've had 250 families join," DiRienzo said. "That's families, not individual members, from all over the valley, not just Ashland."

At the same time, ScienceWorks has been reaching out to adults and seniors with new programs. The center hosts Osher Lifelong Learning Institute classes during the school year, which has brought in more senior members with classes on a range of subjects such as astronomy, wine basics and chaos theory. Also, the museum has a science advisory board that meets once a month and gives presentations such as the October 2009 gathering to discuss the NASA LCROSS project, which smashed a space vehicle into the moon to study the material ejected from the impact.

"More people are joining now because there are more reasons to become members," DiRienzo said.

The museum is also scouring local sources to create an excitement about science. In June, a surgical robot was on display for a day, allowing people to try their hands running robotic arms to perform surgery on a dummy.

"We had a lot of people show up for that," DiRienzo said.

With moderate success on the books — particularly during these rough economic times — the ScienceWorks board and staff are entering into a phase of "deep end" strategic business planning, according to DiRienzo.

"That's the next step — planning for the next big stage for ScienceWorks," he said.

In the immediate future, ScienceWorks will host SuperHero Science July 17-19, exploring science with superhero-related activities throughout the weekend. On July 22, a geocaching event is planned.

For information, call 541-482-6767 or see the Web site

Myles Murphy is an editor and reporter with the Daily Tidings. Reach him at

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