Charting New Directions by Embracing Risk

I was recently invited to deliver a keynote address at the second annual California State University-Informal Science Institutions Collaborative Symposium to Promote Science Education. The goal of my presentation, generously funded by The Boeing Company, was to inspire students new to the informal education field as well as established professionals successfully working in museums.

I focused on the launch of the Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration and how professionals can take calculated risks to propel themselves and their institutions further down the path to success. I am genuinely excited each time I have an opportunity to attend a professional meeting of this kind. It lets me share what we’re doing at Lincoln Park Zoo with colleagues while also learning about their new initiatives.

When I was still an emerging professional at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, professional development opportunities like these sponsored by universities, museums and groups like Museums Educators of Southern California and California Association of Museums provided my first glimpse into new innovations in the field.

Through these symposia I learned about including community voice and learner choice in our interpretation, rather than simply reciting the canned field-trip scripts of the 1970s and ’80s. We now know the latter to be ineffective at learner engagement. I also discovered networking could open a great pathway to learning new things about our field. I still remember a provocative lecture by Patterson Williams, an educational leader at the Denver Art Museum, on encouraging your institution to focus on serving a single audience really well rather than trying to be everything to everyone.

Now it was my turn to serve up some inspiration, questions for consideration, and perhaps a provocative comment or two. I focused on the concept of balancing risk and reward while striving to set new directions. Risk is scary, and unfortunately, I was born with a few extra worry genes. Every day a new concern races across my brain, and I have to set those aside and march forward.

Worries beset me in the days leading up to my presentation. What if our Observe to Learn iPad app wasn’t public by the time of my talk? (It wasn’t but the sky didn't fall.) What if we didn’t get any applicants for our new Career Explorers and Research Apprenticeship programs? (The application just became available—we’ll find out soon!) What if my research protocols got bogged down in a review process (they did) that derailed our program launch (it didn’t).

My talk was well-received. One museum professional who has been in the field for many years told me she felt inspired by it. She said she’s going to dig back in and try to make some things happen at her institution rather than see barriers as unmovable and absolute. She laughed and added that we can all become complacent. My talk had nudged her out of that inert space.

Her feedback was affirming. At the Hurvis Center we embrace risk—as vulnerable as it may leave us at times—because we know great risks can result in great achievements.

Leah Melber


Leah Melber, Ph.D., is Senior Director of the Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration at Lincoln Park Zoo.


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