Winter Garden resident JoAnn Newman leads the Orlando Science Center, which aims to inspire curiosity and exploration in guests of all ages.
The largest renovation project in 20 years is complete at the Orlando Science Center, and President and CEO JoAnn Newman is proud to be involved in this milestone. It's hard for her to choose a favorite part of the new KidsTown, she said, which is now four times the size of the original.
“We're trying to fill a gap we see in the community, which is high-quality educational opportunities for young children and their parents,” Newman said. “It's 11,000 square feet, and (visually) it's amazing, it's gorgeous, it's very colorful and engaging.”
The most popular area of KidsTown is still there, she said, but it offers expanded activities for children.
“The orange grove is something I always hear about in the community, so we have a new and improved orange grove, presented by Dr. Phillips Charities,” said Newman, a Winter Garden resident. “The audience of children ages 7 and younger is one of our largest audiences, and it was one of the smallest areas.”
The young guests can still pick oranges from the trees and load them into crates, but they can now sort them, wash and dry them in a simulated factory environment and feed all the oranges into a citrus tower. Then the lights flash, and the oranges drop out of the tower, and the kids can start the process all over again.
A citrus truck has been added, and children can sit in it and actually change a tire.
Newman said there isn't a great deal of technology in the exhibit.
“It's about their hands-on interaction,” she said. “They get cooperative play, which leads to the goal of teamwork and communication.
“That was really our design approach — and, of course, everything has to be fun and engaging, but there is a lot of learning taking place,” she said. “Children do learn through play … the 21st century skills that we all need to be successful, not only the STEM career, which we're focused on, but in whatever career they choose.”
There are a few instances where technology comes to play.
In the KidsTown Studio, Children can create a customized digital card and send it to a young patient at Florida Hospital. Nurses receive the cards on iPads and can show the children and print them out for them.
“The hospital wanted the studio they sponsored to have a real connection to the hospital,” Newman said.
When designing the new KidsTown, OSC formed an advisory council made up of staff members, early childhood experts and an exhibit design firm. Their focus was on creating an environment in which children can use skills that are needed to be successful in life.
“Imaginiative play is an important one in order to develop that imagination and critical thinking, … the ability to solve problems,” Newman said. “And then there's ClimbTime … and that's all about this confidence-building and risk-taking. We've combined both the physical activity, which children need, along withs ome hidden things like a scavenger hunt that they discover as they climb along.”
Other features in KidsTown include Drip Drop Splash, where guests can climb inside a water table and stand in a rain shower; Explore It, which brings together light and air and physics and allows participants to build their own track or skyscrapers or anything else their imagination allows; Harriett's KidsTown Theatre; and Toddler Town, which engages children up to age 2.
“One thing I love in the toddler space is the high-tech peekaboo,” Newman said. “A parent can be on one side and the kids can be on the other. Both of you have controls, so it's just really fun. The glass turns either opaque or clear.”
Parents play an important role in their children's education, and OSC provides resources such as workshops and work-on-your-own activities.
NEW FOR 2017
The renovation of KidsTown is just the first leg of a major project OSC is working on, Newman said.
“We've now done such a good job with the little ones; the next projects are what we call 'all ages,'” she said.
Touring exhibits keep the science center's offerings fresh and updated, such as the upcoming Astronaut.
“Astronaut is going to give the audience a little bit of a feel for what it takes to become a space explorer,” she said.
Guests can learn about the physical and psychological affects of being an astronaut and discover the technology needed to complete a mission. They can sit in simulators. And they can take on challenges that center around teamwork and communication.
The next exhibit is Identity, which teaches about genetics, uniqueness and one's physical, psychological and social identity.
Another exhibit, Playing with Light, is just that, Newman said.
“You can mix colored lights, you can freeze and interact with your shadow, there's a strobe-light area, a maze of laser lights, fiber optics, a way to paint with light …” she said.
And speaking of lights, the popular and nostalgic laser light shows are still a thing at the Orlando Science Center. A new program called Science Night Live is geared toward adults looking for a fun and different Saturday evening out.
CEO DISCOVERS OSC
The CEO's first exposure to the Orlando center was when she chaperoned a sleepover for her daughter. She said both of her children, now grown, have benefited from OSC, and her son even volunteered with the animals in the nature area.
Newman didn't have access to a science center growing up, she said, but she did have engineers in her family. Her father was an engineer at heart, and her oldest brother is an engineer and is the one who convinced her to study engineering.
She earned her undergraduate degree in industrial and systems engineering at Pennsylvania State University and has a master's degree in industrial engineering from Purdue University. She and her husband, who now live near downtown Winter Garden, previously called Windermere home for 18 years.
After a 22-year career with AT&T, Newman was hired in 2003 as the director of exhibits and operations at the Orlando Science Center. She has been CEO since 2009.
She has seen many changes during her 14 years at the center and said she is proud of her team and how far they've come with OSC.
A decade ago, attendance reached 220,000. Last year, 570,000 people were discovering and learning there.
She expects the children's area to continue to drive science center memberships, which run $155 annually for a family. If that cost is too steep for folks, they can see if they qualify for the $25 annual option. For those who want to visit just for the day, EBT card-holders can get in for $3 and take up to five people at a $3 apiece.
Newman believes strongly in introducing education to children at a young age and engaging the next generation of future employable adults.
“When we talk about STEM learning, we say, 'you just can't start learning early enough,'” she said. “And if we're going to fill these jobs, we have to start looking at nontraditional places. Seventy-five percent of engineers had a family member or friend who was an engineer, so we need to reach out. We need more girls in engineering, we need more students of colors to go into these careers, so that's some of the work the Orlando Science Center can do, so we're really excited about that.”
Contact Amy Quesinberry at [email protected].
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