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Infusing Education with Fun for 176 Years

by Paul C. Heintz

Summer 2000, Vol. 63, No. 2

The Franklin Institute is a magical place for kids of all ages. It has long captivated me and has had a role in my life that I never envisioned when I first walked through its doors. Not having been raised in Philadelphia, I was first lured into The Franklin Institute as a young lawyer during a casual lunchtime visit. My intention was to indulge my longstanding interest in science and technology: I had obtained private pilot's and radio amateur licenses as a teenager and had long been an amateur meteorologist. In high school, I had even considered becoming an aeronautical or electrical engineer.

My daytime break was unusual. But as a fourth-year associate, I was feeling a little more secure about taking respites from writing memos, briefs and other stuff, and time-keeping had not then been elevated to the science and taskmaster that it is today. I was also struggling to avoid that professional cave that swallows up so many lawyers.

Although I did not realize it, as I negotiated the cluster of yellow school buses, mounted the majestic steps, walked between those huge columns and saw the excitement in the eyes of those children, I was on the hook. I was reeled in that afternoon when I returned to the office and called the Institute to talk to the recently appointed director, Joel N. Bloom. I thought I might give him some ideas for improving the Institute's Aviation Hall.

Just a few months later, I found myself chairing the newly organized Aviation Hall Exhibit Committee and ultimately I was invited to join the board of trustees, where I sit today. That's what happens when you just keep attending meetings, never say no, develop a sense of accomplishment and have fun. For a total of fifteen years or so, I have intermittently provided whatever work, wisdom and wealth is expected of board members, with differing emphasis on each through those years.

Approximately 900,000 people tour The Franklin Institute every year. That is the Institute's best known means of carrying out its mission of educating the public, particularly youngsters, about science and technology and inspiring them to keep learning. To this day, I watch with considerable pride and emotion as the school children excitedly charge through the place, eyes wide with wonder. Grins appear on their faces as they pause, look, listen and touch. Yes, the light bulb has gone on!

The Franklin Institute is often best remembered for certain timeless artifacts, like the famed heart, the locomotive and the USAF T-33 airplane. But they alone do not keep generations of children, teachers and parents returning to the Institute. And the Institute cannot be a simple museum with dusty items to gaze at from afar. With ever-growing competition for the public's time, attention and discretionary dollar, The Franklin Institute, as all other cultural institutions, finds it harder to lure people in the door. The Institute meets the challenge by being adaptable and frequently reinventing itself.

The Institute periodically alters its structure and layout. It has added a Science Park, well-designed exhibit halls and teaching rooms and has constructed the magnificent Tuttleman IMAX Theater, which features films such as "Everest," "Whales," "The Magic of Flight" and "The Great Barrier Reef." The Institute produces new exhibits once or twice a year. "Powers of Nature" was fascinating, and the kids loved "MegaBugs." "Franklin . . . He's Electric" is a new permanent installation, "Sports Challenge" will soon be added and "Kid Science" will open next year. An eye-catching "Skybike" allows visitors to ride across the Atrium twenty-eight feet above the gawking visitors. In short, the Institute makes learning fun.

It cannot be otherwise. Today's visitors demand a near flawless and entertaining educational experience, having visited such theme parks as DisneyWorld, and the Institute must keep its exhibits fresh and functional. Recently, the operational rate of exhibits has been consistently above ninety percent and averaging close to ninety-five percent. The Institute sponsors special programs like the popular Discovery Camp, eight weeks of day camp and total immersion science for girls and boys ages 6 to 13. They have overnight camp-ins and evening astronomy workshops. Of course, the Fels Planetarium has been a consistent draw, and the latest show, "Beyond the Edge of the Universe," is quite popular.

In its attempt to bring the entire family together and to stimulate interest at all levels, the Institute launched its annual evening Family Fun Fest. It also offers an exceptional evening lecture series in which Daniel Goldin, the administrator of NASA, has addressed audiences, as has Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Stephen Jay Gould and James Burke.

While the 176-year-old Franklin Institute is kept forever young and fresh, it also reaches well beyond the walls of its building, opened in 1934 after the Institute outgrew the site now occupied by the Atwater-Kent Museum. The Institute sponsors a Traveling Science Show that, in one recent year, produced more than 800 shows for about 450,000 fans. With the help of Unisys, a major sponsor, the Institute unleashed the potential for virtual reality as a training medium for groups of teachers who are geographically separated. The Institute also has one of the best and most popular science museum Web sites in the world. Five-year-old TFI Online (www.fi.edu) is getting 40 million hits per year and recently set a single day record with more than 280,000 files served.

The Institute also focuses on teacher professional development to inspire good science teaching. A regular recipient of government and foundation grants to support its programs, the Institute has even created a network in eastern Pennsylvania for those who teach kindergarten through eighth grade.

The Franklin Institute is the only science museum with an internationally acclaimed awards program. Established in 1824, the annual awards event fetes accomplished scientists, many of whom are later awarded a Nobel Prize. The awardees are celebrated during an elegant evening in the Benjamin Franklin Memorial, the national memorial for Benjamin Franklin, where Ben himself gazes approvingly on the awardees.

The Institute has provided a valuable education for me, one that has gone well beyond science and technology. The Institute has made me a better lawyer. It taught me how a nonprofit board functions and how to run meetings, raise money, meet marketing and business challenges and be a good board member. It has introduced me to many of Philadelphia's movers and shakers. It has showed me just how dedicated and talented people like Dennis Wint, the Institute president, and others who head Philadelphia's important nonprofit institutions are. Above all, the Institute has helped me to maintain balance in my life and to avoid becoming a lawyer-caveman.

Today, I continue to believe that all young lawyers should take mid-day walks. We lawyers have more to offer than simply writing memos and briefs and battling adversaries. The rewards of loyalty to and volunteer work for any cultural or charitable organization can be substantial. It's not just about giving back. In truth, The Franklin Institute has done more for me during my thirty years of volunteering than I could ever give back.