Science Project: Can a Pair of West Knoxville Moms Put Together a New, State-of-the-Art Children's Discovery Center?

Tucked against the far wall of Panera Bread on North Peters Road, among the besuited business people chatting seriously over coffee and the large groups of moms whose members alternate between wrangling small children and laughing with their friends, are two women sitting at a table covered in binders and documents. One is on her cell phone and the other is sipping her coffee as she looks over the pages of notes in front of her.

When Ashley Klappholz hangs up, she smiles and apologizes. She has the harried look one assumes is typical of a person in charge of a big project. And Klappholz's project is indeed big. She, along with Ellie Kittrell (sitting across from her at the wobbly table), are trying to start a completely new children's science museum for Knoxville called the MUSE.

"When we moved here with our kids, we realized this [a children's museum] was something Knoxville was lacking," Klappholz says.

"There's some good things here. Oak Ridge has a great science museum. But in terms of a larger-scale, discovery, interactive center—we don't have [one]," Kittrell says.

The Association of Children's Museums cites a decade's worth of studies that say providing kids with a place to learn through play is essential to their development. Play allows kids to test theories, improve cognition, pick up on the idea of narratives, and recognize the differences in different people's personalities, the ACM says on its website. Children's museums are places where kids can concentrate on exhibits and subjects they find most appealing without the constraints of a classroom. But, the ACM says, children's museums also create a sense of community and a place for families to connect; they contribute to local economies, and, in many cases, contribute to downtown revitalization projects. And Knoxville, in Klappholz and Kittrell's view, is missing just such a place.

"What we kept hearing was, we are on this one highway between here and so many different places. This is definitely a need," Klappholz adds.

Knoxville, Klappholz and Kittrell have found, is one of the largest cities without a science center for kids. But it also attracts professionals in science fields who come here to work in places like the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Y-12 National Security Complex.

"There's a lot of transient people in the community that are coming from all over the nation who have been exposed to children's discovery, interactive, science centers on a larger scale than what we have in our area," Kittrell says.

These two moms, who prefer to work at Panera during the mid-morning rush instead of at their houses surrounded by their kids (who, they say, can be more distracting than baristas calling out coffee orders), have been putting together plans for their would-be science museum and recruiting a board (of mostly moms) for nearly a year. They are in the process of drawing up "something a little more than a feasibility study" that will include design schemes and possible exhibits as well as estimated costs, but they already have a space in mind: the old convention center. (They're both quick to point out that "nothing's been promised" and that they're simply drawing up plans based on what that building would offer.)

They chose the old convention center because of its proximity to downtown, Market Square, and the other museums downtown. It's now called the Knoxville Convention and Exposition Center, and it's right around the corner of Clinch Avenue and Henley Street next to the World's Fair Park, and is used for events like meetings and weddings. The building the MUSE is designing their plans around is across the street from the Sunsphere, just a walk through the park to the Knoxville Museum of Art, and a few blocks from places like the Museum of East Tennessee History and Blount Mansion.

But the MUSE isn't the first children's museum to eye the prime location of the old convention center. Knoxville, in fact, already has a children's museum, and in 2008 the tiny East Tennessee Discovery Center had similar plans and designs ready to go for a move to the building. However, its board of community leaders—including names like Rep. Joe Armstrong, developer David Dewhirst, the Knoxville Chamber's Mike Edwards, Laura Eshbaugh of Edison Schools, and Joe Sullivan, former publisher of Metro Pulse—was unable to get the plan in gear with sufficient funding, and five years later the Discovery Center is still in the 5,000-square-foot building it's called home since the 1970s.

So can a pair of West Knoxville moms succeed where some of Knoxville's foremost civic leaders failed?

***

Margaret Maddox, the director of the East Tennessee Discovery Center, has a realistic, if optimistic, view of the center's modest gray concrete building next to Chilhowee Park. In her office, a long room where the loud, happy voices of children on a field trip can still be heard, she recounts the history of the building. It was built around 1975, and is owned by the city. It may once have been an example of modern architecture, but the building—now surrounded by evergreen trees—shows its age.

"The heating and air system is something a lot of people don't even recognize. We've had issues with trees falling on the roof, so I mean there are issues in this building on a daily basis," she says. "I've just spent $3,000 repairing the heat and air, and we have to get someone to come take a look at the roof because there's so many trees around here. I've had a bunch of trees removed that were poking holes in the roof."

The Discovery Center has something of a family-owned feel. Maddox says the Discover Center welcomed people from 20 different states and more than 22 Tennessee counties during the holiday season, and attendance was around 50,000 people last year. Tax records show that the museum makes more than two-thirds of its money through school outreach and museum programs, and grants. It made $304,099 in 2011, and went about $60 over budget.

Meanwhile, Nashville's Adventure Science Center sees about 300,000 visitors annually. The Children's Museum of Memphis opened in 1991, and welcomed 200,000 people its first year. As of 2008, that museum had seen 2.5 million visitors. Those museums have much more space than the little Discovery Center in Chilhowee Park, and serve larger cities. But Johnson City's Hands On! Regional Museum had about 65,000 people walk through its doors last year.

Maddox has a staff of four people to help her run the place from day-to-day, and says they really have to work together to make things happen sometimes.

"When you have a small staff, everyone wears many different hats from cleaning the bathroom, to paying the bills, to scheduling. It's just what you do," she says. "We have a stable staff that's just used to carrying their weight. Nothing is beneath us."

When Maddox was asked by the museum's board to take the helm of the Discovery Center 17 years ago, she was a nurse and a member of the Knox County School Board. Her three children (two of whom are currently in science fields themselves) had gone through Knox County schools, where she had several teacher contacts. As a school board member, she'd been something of a liaison with the museum. So when it hadn't had a director for three years, she agreed to take it over.

At the time, the Discovery Center was home to the Students' Museum, which was founded as a natural history and science museum in 1960, and featured a number of stuffed wild animals, including birds, deer heads, a brown bear and a polar bear.

"I heard someone say ‘Who killed that?' So I said this stuff's got to go. And it wasn't just one child. I really couldn't answer that question, nor did I want to hear it repeatedly," Maddox says.

So on the weekends, she and a colleague replaced the threadbare carpets, pulled it off the walls, put up Sheetrock, and added a fresh coat of paint to the new walls. She also asked her son's West High School art class, as well as an art class at Central High School, to paint a mural on one wall of the museum.

"It was a few years of just trying to clean the place up, and saving up enough money to make those sort of improvements, and that was a while ago," Maddox says.

It was quite the labor of love, but she knows it's important for kids to catch the love for science early on. Though the exhibits now include tanks of fish and reptiles, they too are showing their age.

"Science is not something that you teach from the book. It's hands-on, it's do-and-learn that way, and it has to be fun if you want to hook the kids." Maddox says. "My oldest son is at his master's in theoretical physical chemistry. I think he was hooked in the fourth grade at Bearden Elementary School by a teacher who loved science. And as a result of that, she took time and focused on science. So, we're just trying to fill that gap."

Maddox was also instrumental in strengthening the museum's formal education ties, as she'd made friends with several teachers while serving on the Knox County School Board.

But Maddox says she also knows the 5,000 square feet that the museum's surprisingly large number of exhibits are crammed into (including a planetarium) can't be the end point for the Discovery Center. She was ready to lead the Discovery Center into a new era in 2008. Master plans, exhibit designs, and costs had been calculated, prepared, and packed into a sleek packet that was presented to its board of trustees and donors. The Discovery Center was ready to move into the old convention center, giving it eight times the space it currently has (to around 40,000 square feet). The board was eager for the expansion. And then, Maddox says, the economy tanked.

"Timing-wise, it was just not the time to start a $25 million capital campaign, especially knowing that some of the expertise had to [hire to work on the building]—there's about $7 million worth of work that needs to be done on the convention center just to bring it up to code," Maddox says. "But the timing was, it seemed like we were so close, and then the bottom fell out. As a result of that, we were in that mode of ‘don't spend any money on the facility per se, because we're saving for the big thing.' And now it's a matter of resetting that mindset, continue doing what we do in terms of our formal science education, but get back into looking at the facility and spending money."

The plans are still in Maddox's office. They portray a vibrant, spacious museum with a "river" running through it.

Maddox says that she had been trying to save as much money as possible, avoiding big-ticket exhibit upgrades and building changes in anticipation of vacating the aging building in the near future. But when the museum's biggest funder—Clayton Family Foundation, says a former board member—backed out of the proposed expansion most likely due to the economy's nose dive, the dreams of moving into bigger digs essentially died.

"It's time to start all over again. You're on hold for a while because you don't want to throw good money if you're going to move," she says. But since those dreams are once again on hold, the Discovery Center will focus on smaller, but mobile improvements.

"That's what we're looking at now. Small improvements in the kids' space, the small exhibits in there because there's a lot of need for that pre-school area that is fun but educational. We've got a lot to do to give the community what they need, but it's on a small scale. But small doesn't mean its bad."

For example, the Discovery Center was able to give its space-shuttle exhibit a major overhaul.

"We just, since September, had our space shuttle totally redone. The only thing we don't have in there right now is the air compressor. Our air compressor went down," she says.

But Maddox speaks like she still has hope that the Discovery Center will have more space one day. In fact, she mentions the soon-to-be-installed planetarium equipment was purchased because it's easily portable.

"Part of the issue then, will be, as you move [exhibits] out, where do you put them so you can bring them back if they're in good enough shape and still enough interest. There's so many smaller things that you can get on a kiosk that not everything is huge. You can get tons of smaller ones," she says.

And Maddox's board, she says, has been encouraging her to travel around to get some ideas on new exhibits. Though she did more of that earlier in her tenure at the Discovery Center ("Like the shadow box—I saw that wherever I was at the time and thought ‘how cool is that?' So we built one ourselves," Maddox says), she has mainly relied on finding traveling exhibits to rotate through to refresh the content of the Discovery Center.

"The way to go half the time is, I used to get four or five traveling exhibits that would refresh us. A lot of those exhibits have gone off the market," she says. At the moment, she's working on getting an exhibit of brain teasers that has been at the Discovery Center before.

But, she says, part of her plan for the new year is to make an effort to do more traveling to get some new ideas for permanent exhibits.

"My board encourages me to do this and I am definitely going to do more—I need to see what's out there, go to see other places. There's no sense in reinventing the wheel. The process [of finding exhibits] is formulating in your head, either by seeing it elsewhere and then contacting someone who can [make it], but a lot of museums, they'll fabricate for you or sell you exhibits as they rotate their exhibits around. It's just a matter of spending some time traveling and seeing what it is you want," she explains.

***

But some would argue that Maddox ought to be doing more to develop permanent exhibits. Becky Lindsay, the creative director of Mindsplash, a company dedicated to helping museums across the country design better exhibits, says the model of relying on traveling exhibits is dying quickly, even among the country's larger museums.

"They take a lot of effort to put in and [take] out. And they become sort of the only thing you can do with exhibits. So all the rest of your exhibits are getting tired, and then you have this treadmill where you're trying to raise money for your traveling exhibits," she says. "It does work at first, but then once that's your plan—in other words, once you go to the board and say I'm going to have a traveling exhibit all the time, if you don't have one, the public gets mad. And they only last three months at a time, so you have to do four of them a year.

"At a certain point, museums realize that the cost-benefit wasn't great enough. The other part is, travelers are still uneven in the quality. And depending on their age and how well they've been taken care of, some of them wind up being good and some of them wind up not being as good. So you're spending a lot of money and you don't have as much control over what it is."

Lindsay, who has been working on a volunteer basis with the MUSE crew, says what will be a pivotal factor in the MUSE's economic sustainability will be the fact that it's not designed to rely on traveling exhibits.

"So those of us who've been in the museum [business] and have done it both ways feel that building change into the exhibits that you have—so that you can pull out one exhibit and put in another one and change things in the ‘make lab'—is a better long-term sustainable strategy than counting on huge travelers that will cost several hundred thousand dollars every year to fund. This will be a much more reasonable way to do it," she says.

But it's not just a smart business model that will keep the MUSE viable, Lindsay says. The content of the exhibits will be designed with more modern teaching methods. Klappholz, Kittrell, and Lindsay share the belief that science requires hands-on experience for principles to be fully realized in young minds, and the MUSE's exhibits will be a reflection of that belief.

"We have three [of] what we're calling ‘make labs.' One is art-based, so it's messy materials. Another is a general mixed space, where there's going to be woodworking tools and other simple tools to build and make an engineer-based project, and the tech space for older kids will have more technology and 3D printers and that sort of thing," Lindsay says. "Kids don't have places just to sort of mess around and invent things and don't have access to workshops and those kind of things. And that actually ties into … the Maker movement."

The Maker movement Lindsay references is part of an educational system that aims to provide technologically skilled workforce members, which would then in turn revitalize the country's manufacturing industry. The general idea, and the idea the MUSE is running with, is that if you let kids experiment and learn through cause and effect some basic engineering principles, you get better engineers in the future. Lindsay offers an anecdote that a large U.S. corporation found that its best engineers had the chance, as children, to learn through building things themselves, and then made that an informal prerequisite for future hires.

"The way kids play is the way scientists solve problems," she says. "Children pose a theory about what they think is going to happen or they pose a problem and they form a theory about what's going to happen, they do something, and then if it does happen that way, then they've proven their theory. If it doesn't, they need to look for another way to solve their problem."

Klappholz and Kittrell point to Knox Makers, which describes itself as a "hackspace," in Oak Ridge where people (not just kids) can go and create in an inspiring environment, as evidence that there is desire in Knoxville for a similar place for little ones. Kittrell explains the Maker movement is gaining popularity in places like New York and San Francisco.

"It's kind of like the cross section where technology meets arts and crafts," she says. "You meet socially to just make stuff."

Klappholz, Kittrell, and Lindsay aimed to take local wants and needs into consideration, and coordinated quasi-focus group meetings with educators, experts, and families to find out what they would want in a children's science museum. The MUSE team now wants to bring those ideas to life and apply them practically to the lives of kids in East Tennessee. The exhibits will focus on fields of science and industries that create jobs in the region, like architecture and river management.

"In fact, one of the areas we had picked was called ‘3D,' and that did not actually seem to work, so that was reworked and became an area called ‘Build,' which became tied into architects, engineers, and designers, which are professions in the Knoxville area," she says. "We have a large area called ‘Flow,' and that area has a large water feature, and one part of the water feature is like a mountain stream, a riverway. You actually put locks and dams in it, sort of like what TVA would do. But also if you don't put the locks and dams in, you could flood an area."

In addition to direct community input, the MUSE team drew a lot of their inspiration from St. Louis' Magic House children's museum, which also emphasizes interaction in its exhibits. That museum was also founded by two women in 1979, and started out in a little Victorian house and expanded steadily into its current facility as it saved up money. Last year, that museum had more than 500,000 children walk through its doors (and has seen about 10 million people since it first opened).

MUSE board member Chelly Clayton's father-in-law, Jim Clayton, whose Clayton Family Foundation is one of the organizations that helped fund the MUSE's feasibility plan (it also help fund the Knoxville Museum of Art's construction), even stepped in and requested more science content in the MUSE after visiting the Magic House and St. Louis' Science Center and another innovative science museum in Denmark. And the elder Clayton's interest also cemented the need for the museum to appeal to all ages, and not just the typical under-eight set.

"I want the parents and grandparents to be just as interested in the exhibits," Chelly Clayton says.

"It is not a build it and they will come. That's not a successful proposition," Kittrell points out. "It's pertinent that the community becomes a stakeholder in their own right in the development of this project."

***

Chelly Clayton served on the board of the Discovery Center for about a year (where she met Klappholz, who had expressed an early interest in collaborating with the center), but joined it just after the center's plans to expand were scrapped. Clayton says it was one of the first boards she served on, and she joined at a slightly tumultuous time for the board members.

"A lot of the board was resigning because they had served for so long," she says. "I didn't know what I was doing!"

Clayton, who has only served on two other boards (at the Knoxville Zoo and Random Acts of Flowers), says her lack of experience prevented her from feeling like an asset to the board during a period of serious transition.

"I didn't have a lot of support," she says. "I didn't feel like I could make a difference. Nothing was happening."

Though she didn't have any involvement in the creation of the Discovery Center's expansion plans, she did take a look at them and wasn't too thrilled. To her, there seemed to be less emphasis on the content of the exhibits and more on the aesthetic design inside the building, which left something to be desired.

"What about the exhibits? What are [kids] going to learn? Are they going to want to come back?" she says she wondered.

But while Clayton was on the board of the Discovery Center, she met Klappholz, who set up a meeting with Clayton and Maddox to express an interest in working with the Discovery Center. And Clayton says there was a very distinct difference between the founder of the MUSE and the Discovery Center's current state.

"One thing I saw in Ashley was she wasn't going to give up," Clayton says. "I do see more passion with the MUSE. The MUSE seems very open-minded to different ideas."

Upon joining the MUSE's board in 2012, Clayton was especially impressed with the level of community input the MUSE sought in planning what would be included in all of its exhibits. She attended a couple of the community meetings the team held to get an idea of what people in Knoxville want, and says she heard nothing but good feedback.

"They've done such a good job of involving the community. It's not just about some fancy building, or, like one educator said, fluff exhibits where the kids don't learn anything. I don't think we talked to a single person who said it wasn't a good idea," Clayton says. "I didn't see a lot of community involvement at the Discovery Center. Maybe there was in the beginning [of the expansion planning]."

As a mother of a 9-year-old herself, Clayton says Knoxville's abundance of outdoor destinations and grown-up museums make its need for an indoor place to take kids crystal clear, especially since people must drive elsewhere to visit science museums.

"Every mom I talk to, they take their kids somewhere else to go to a museum. They drive to Chattanooga, or North Carolina," she says. "[A museum] is such a need here."

***

It would seem like the Discovery Center and the MUSE are at odds with each other. But both teams say they're operating as if they're in two different solar systems, and they don't (publicly) express any ill will toward the other.

"When it comes to the number of programs that we do, we're third on the list [among five children's museums in the state]. So we're very prolific in terms of doing that, but they have much bigger facilities in terms of informal science aspect," Maddox explains. "What we do I think we do well, but we need to do better on what we offer the community in terms of a walk-in basis."

But compared to the multi-million dollar buildings and exhibits at Nashville's Adventure Science Center and the Children's Museum of Memphis, and even the more modest Chattanooga Creative Discovery Museum and Hands On! Regional Museum of Johnson City, the Discovery Center lags.

"We're not out to duplicate anything that's already being done in Knoxville. There's no point in that. There's so much out there to bring to our kids," Kittrell explains. The MUSE's learn-through-play set-up and proposed creative areas would be more on par with the state's four biggest children's museums than the Discovery Center is now.

And Klappholz even says she's like to keep in touch with the Discovery Center.

"We are still hoping to be able to reach out to them and talk about some collaborations and partnerships with them down the road," she says.

And perhaps the two museums will operate on separate planes; Maddox says her school outreach programs reached more than 33,000 kids last year, and about 21,000 at the center itself.

Meanwhile, Klappholz opened and ran a successful for-profit "museum-quality" play and learning center in 2008, Sprout Studio at Downtown West, which saw more than 70,000 visitors that year. But the economic downturn prevented her from expanding the operation, and she closed it. Lindsay says that too many people in a too-cramped space like Klappholz's Sprout Studio actually worked against her. The economic conditions did not allow her to make enough money to expand, and the lack of change in the space and exhibit became a hindrance for her. But after closing, Klappholz says she continued to hear from parents who wanted a new space that offered the experience Sprout had.

In that same time frame—in October 2010—the Charlotte, N.C., children's science center Discovery Place KIDS opened. Though its parent museum, the Charlotte Nature Museum, has existed since 1951, the KIDS center is its most recent addition, and it was born out of a similar model to the MUSE: a community-based place for kids to learn through play. It was an $18.7 million venture that received both public and private donations to reach that goal. In its first year, it welcomed 200,000 visitors—twice the number of the museum's initial estimate.

But it's still early for the MUSE, which has several months of work ahead before it can even begin to start a conversation with the city about securing the old convention center for its use, let alone starting a capital campaign to fund it all. First it has to complete its detailed study of what it will cost to make the MUSE, and what kind of exhibits will be in it. With Becky Lindsay's help, that project should be completed within the next month. The MUSE team doesn't appear to be worried about the museum's future, though.

"Even today it's not a sure thing," Clayton says. But even if the big funders of the MUSE (namely the Clayton Family Foundation) decided not to continue supporting the effort, she says she's sticking around. "I'm still going to support Ashley. We may have to move into a little Victorian house first."

But the optimistic team of moms still faces an economy trudging to a recovery, and the legacy of a recent failed attempt at expansion into the very building they're eyeing. Even if its feasibility study declares the project viable, they will still have to persuade investors to share their enthusiasm for the MUSE.