The Franklin Institute expands - and explores

Judah Mccollum, 7, investigates optical illusions. "Our job is to excite the heck out of kids about science," an institute official says.
Judah Mccollum, 7, investigates optical illusions. "Our job is to excite the heck out of kids about science," an institute official says. (ANDREW THAYER / Staff)
Posted: June 09, 2014

Just as the Franklin Institute eases into its new 53,000-square-foot, $41 million Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion, which opens Saturday, the science center figures it needs to get out of the building more often.

And it is. The 190-year-old institute is opening science high schools in Egypt and Philadelphia, training teachers in science curriculum, and developing programs that turn on young scholars to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Some of these programs are well-established. The institute has deployed mobile science shows for nearly 80 years and reaches 200,000 students a year from Virginia to Connecticut. But there's no question that, more than ever, the Franklin is increasing its reach and that the Karabots Pavilion ends, at least for now, its focus on its Parkway building.

"This is the last construction we're going to do for a long while," says Larry Dubinski, the chief operating officer who July 1 inherits the CEO and president titles from Dennis M. Wint.

The Karabots Pavilion, in fact, has been designed to facilitate the Franklin Institute's contact with the outside world. Square footage for traveling shows has doubled. Digital technology built into the space will allow scientists and students to make contact with counterparts around the world. "The first-floor education space allows us to double the number of kids we serve," says Frederic Bertley, senior vice president for science. "That's what excites me."

When the Futures Center, the institute's last major expansion, opened in 1990, the goal was in part to reinvigorate attendance. The bump was considerable, but temporary, and the institute never finished the center's fund-raising campaign. Unpaid bills were financed with a bond debt whose payments linger today.

Traveling shows

In part to help finance that debt, the institute started to import traveling exhibitions, and the new pavilion reflects this important revenue source. Some shows require venues with climate-control systems to keep temperature and humidity at specific levels; the William Penn Foundation paid for such a system for the pavilion.

Traveling shows are here to stay. "The traveling-exhibition model has become important to us to drive revenue and attendance," says Troy Collins, senior vice president of programs, marketing, and business development.

Such shows, however, make year-to-year attendance figures more volatile, and since hitting 1.7 million visitors in 2007 - the year of the King Tut show - attendance has softened, from 861,959 in 2008 to 754,989 last year.

But as the institute increases activities beyond the building, the core attendance figure tells only part of the story of who is being served by, and who is funding, the Franklin. Many outside activities come with their own revenue streams - government grants or philanthropy. Building science high schools in Cairo, for instance, a project with three U.S. partners, was partly paid for with a $25 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The Franklin is also expanding outreach and educational initiatives to underserved populations in the suburbs, Camden, and North Philadelphia. "This is a workforce-development issue," Dubinski says. "The future of job development is in STEM, and we need to help facilitate that. I think philanthropists see the importance of supporting education and workforce development."

He says it will be important to both reverse the decline in attendance downtown and pursue avenues for presenting science outside the building. He says that in recent months he has met with 75 current and potential partners to discuss programs to bring science to poorer communities - to be paid for with philanthropy - and to more well-to-do suburbs on an earned-revenue model.

"There are definitely folks who do not want to drive into the city," Dubinski said. "We are looking to aggressively expand those programs. I think what you will see is new and deeper partnerships."

'Core to our values'

At the same time, a substantial endowment campaign lies ahead. "Ours is too low for our size and ambition," Dubinski says. Its current market value is $38.2 million.

That the Franklin Institute is simultaneously going more global (two Cairo high schools, and three others on the way) and hyper-local (taking science to churches, schools, libraries, and community centers) is in step with the priorities of an emerging generation of philanthropists. In general, younger donors are less interested in funding the status quo, instead looking to begin programs that help solve social, educational, and world-health problems.

In fact, the institute has long been involved in many of these areas. "We are no Johnny-come-lately because the money is there," says Wint. "This has been core to our values for decades."

Dubinski believes that in developing initiatives, the institute must weigh return on investment. Expanding digital resources is a priority. "But it is an expensive investment and will be driven by philanthropic support," he says. Reality leavens attendance-bump hopes for the pavilion. "We took a very conservative approach. We expect a modest bump, less than 10 percent."

Many outreach initiatives, as well as scientific matters, fall under Bertley, a Canadian-born former Harvard Medical School immunologist, who has taken on increasing responsibilities since joining the institute staff in 2008.

"Our job is to excite the heck out of kids about science so they can be inquisitive and want to learn," he says. "Not everyone needs to be a scientist. But how do you get kids to focus? We just had the 20th anniversary of one of our youth programs, and a lot of these people who came back are now men and women in their late 30s, and some of them are scientists. But some are lawyers and are doing other jobs."

Among the programs the Franklin runs or participates in: the Communities of Learning for Urban Environments and Science, which teaches families in Philadelphia and Camden; LEAP into Science, a Saturday science and literacy program for children and parents in 50 Free Library branches that has been emulated nationally; the weekly PACTS program (Partnerships for Achieving Careers in Technology and Science), which provides sixth through 12th graders with workshops, research, trips, and college and career counseling.

'Broken'

"The problem is, our educational system is broken," says Bertley, whose parents, originally from Barbados and Trinidad, are academics. "So what can the Franklin Institute do? We have a suite of programs where kids can come in and have an in-depth experience. If you stay with us for one, two, three years, your chance for success increases. Your facility for science concepts increases. That's where the rubber hits the road, that's where you really make a difference."

Students and parents rave about Science Leadership Academy, the magnet school the institute helped to create. "But why only 500 students? . . . It works well at that scale. But can't we have several SLAs?"

'Long legacy'

Bertley says that, unlike some other cultural institutions that simply follow the money, the Franklin is sincere in its philosophy. "The good news is that there is a long legacy [of outreach]. The PACTS program is 20 years old; professional development is in its 35th year. The traveling science show is 78 years old. It started in 1936, making it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, traveling science show in the country."

As further proof, Bertley offers up the annual Color of Science program that encourages students to envision themselves in STEM careers by bringing in minority and female scientists for talks and demonstrations. Wint and then-board chair Marsha R. Perelman acknowledged that "we don't look like the city," Bertley recalls, so the program began without any outside funding. "Now, we're writing our first grant four years later. We did it on sweat equity."

Bertley puts the prevailing philosophy like this:

"Everyone loves the building. And because they love it, they are going beyond the walls."


INSIDE

A 12-page special section explores the Franklin Institute's new expansion. Section K.


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