Stephen A. Karon, executive director for the Sci-Tech Museum of Northern New York, has worked for over a decade furthering the mission of the nonprofit founded in 1983, set on helping the public gain a better understanding of science and technology. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have slowed things down, the mission hasn’t changed, and the museum has adapted with the times. Mr. Karon spoke with NNY Business magazine to discuss the museum, his role with it and how he came to be there, as well as plans for the future.
NNYB: Are you originally from the north country?
KARON: No, I’m originally from around the Boston area.
NNYB: What brought you here?
KARON: I don’t live in Watertown; I live in Syracuse. And I came to Syracuse as the founding director of the Museum of Science and Technology, the MOST, in Syracuse.
NNYB: How did you become involved with the Sci-Tech Center here?
KARON: The Sci-Tech Center was looking for a director, and I had left MOST; I had been there 24 years and was sort of semi-retired. And when the Sci-Tech Center was first beginning, I had been involved with them; the original board came down and met with me at the MOST in Syracuse and were talking about how to start a museum. I was somewhat familiar with Sci-Tech. And over the years, in I guess the late 80s, a couple times I came up and put on programs for Sci-Tech in their Super Science Saturday, which they ran at the State Office Building. I kept in touch with them over the years, and I love the north country. When I was down in Boston, and then went to Baltimore, I always used to go up to the Adirondacks, especially in the winter to hike and climb. I really enjoy the north country, and when Sci-Tech was looking for a director, it seemed like a nice fit.
NNYB: What year did you officially take over the title of executive director?
KARON: That would have been 2008.
NNYB: In the beginning, what led you to sci-tech museums? Did you study in the areas of science and technology at school?
KARON: When I was kid, I lived around Boston, about 40 miles from Boston. When I was in the fifth grade, we lived right on the trolley line in Boston, so I started going to the Museum of Science, which was, at that point, one of the relatively few hands-on science museums in the country. I was really excited about it, and when I turned 13, I found out that you could volunteer at the Museum of Science. So, I immediately signed up, and I began volunteering two days a week after school. And at that point, I knew that I wanted to be in a science museum as my work. Eventually I got a part time job at the Museum of Science, and then got a full-time job there. And aside from two years in the Army when I was drafted, I stayed in science museums. From Boston, I went to what was going to become a Science Center in Baltimore. It was in development. So, the excitement was being in the beginning of a brand- new science museum. I went down to Baltimore and spent eight years there as director of exhibits and facilities. And then I heard about the plan for a science museum in Syracuse. And this was absolutely brand-new, no plans. It was just a committee that had been put together. They wanted to start a science museum in Syracuse. So that was very exciting because here was something that I could really be at the absolute beginning of. I came to Syracuse; we opened in 1981 as a little storefront operation. And then over the next 20 odd years, we eventually moved to an old National Guard armory, went through three expansions in the armory and built the first IMAX theater in upstate New York, and had a major science museum. So, I was there for 24 years as director of that institution.
NNYB: Knowing what you now know, is there anything that you would have done differently in the past in your career with the different science museums?
KARON: As far as being in science museums, I would not have changed that. There are always things you’d do differently. In Maryland, there were a variety of problems that we ran into that, knowing what I know now, we probably could have circumvented. But in Syracuse, we should have involved more of the local industry. It was always a challenge raising the funds to keep the museum going; same problem we’re having here in Watertown. We really need support from the business industry, and it’s a challenge, especially these days with COVID putting a crimp on so much.
NNYB: How have you tried to combat that? Do you do any outreach?
KARON: Yes, we’re continually approaching various businesses to involve ourselves with them, to gain their support. We do have a lot of really good local supporters in the region, but it’s a continuing process. So many of what used to be local companies are now owned out of the area. They’ve been purchased by either out-of-state or even out-of-country entities. So, although at one point they were local, their direction comes from outside of our region. We continue to work to gain new supporters, to maintain the existing supporters, and always are making the case for why Sci-Tech is important to not just the community, but to the companies themselves, especially with the limited understanding of science and technology by the general public. One of the things Sci-Tech tries to do is to make the case that science is something everyone can participate in, and also to help increase the public understanding of science and technology.
NNYB: Is that what you would say is the mission of the museum?
KARON: Yes. In fact, our prime mission is to communicate to the public a better understanding and appreciation of science and the derived technology, the application of science.
NNYB: And how would you say that over the years this has been accomplished?
KARON: In a number of ways. Obviously through our participatory exhibits, hands-on exhibits. Pretty much what hands-on science museums do, but also through a variety of demonstrations, programs. We have an outreach program called the traveling science program that goes around to schools, to libraries, almost any entity-- we’ve gone to recreation centers, we’ve gone to a couple of companies that have hosted at their location, but primarily to schools and libraries. And it is about a 40-minute exciting, fun, entertaining, but also informative, program where we do a variety of flashy demonstrations basically to involve the audience to get them thinking about science, to get them thinking about the fun in science. And that’s very important. When I was going through school, there were some of us, the science geeks, but then there were also a lot of other kids that thought of science as boring, and we want to get over that misconception. Science is not boring, science is exciting, and we try to convey that to everyone and show them how it’s exciting, show them how it’s intriguing and interesting. So, we have demonstrations, programs, also such things as our outdoor astronomy sessions where we bring telescopes to a location and look at interesting things in the nighttime sky. We already have set up two for the summer that we’re going to be doing up in Thousand Island Park, where we’ll set up telescopes, people will be able to come out and look through them at no cost; just people stop by and take a look at the moon or Saturn with some of the other intriguing nighttime objects. Those are always fun. We’ll be setting up more of those as we get closer to the summertime.
NNYB: Since you became the executive director, what changes have you made to help further the mission of bringing accessible science and technology to people in the area?
KARON: Some of the things I mentioned; the traveling science program, that’s one of the things that I initiated. Our outdoor astronomy evenings also are something that I initiated. And we’re always adding on new exhibits, modifying existing exhibits and adding new ones. We have lots of great volunteers that work in everything from helping to build exhibits to supplying materials for them -- I should mention that we are a totally volunteer organization. We have no paid staff at all. Myself included, we’re all volunteers. Sci-Tech depends on the volunteers for everything from greeting visitors to building exhibits to maintaining /cleaning the building, to doing our programs, to raising funds, we’re totally volunteer.
NNYB: Are these full-time volunteers or is it seasonal?
KARON: It varies. We have some that will come in for two hours a week. Some that will come in a couple of days, some will come in once a year. It varies all over the range; whatever support people can provide, we’ll find a way to use it.
NNYB: What are the different areas at the museum that people volunteer in?
KARON: Volunteers do everything from cleaning and housekeeping to building exhibits to repairing exhibits, painting, greeting visitors, presenting our programs, approaching companies for support and soliciting donations. Absolutely everything you can think of the organization needs is done by volunteers.
NNYB: And then you yourself go down on Saturdays and volunteer?
KARON: With COVID I’ve only been going up on Saturdays, and occasionally another day or two during the week as necessary, either for a meeting or if there’s something that needs to be done. Such as, we had an inspection of the building a couple of weeks ago, so I had to go for that, obviously, but normally I would have been up there more frequently, but with COVID, we are only opening the buildings to the public on Saturday, and only a small portion because most of our exhibits are so intensely hands-on that we really still can’t use them under the state directives. So, we have just a portion of the building that we open on Saturdays where we have a few COVID safe exhibits, and also our science gift shop. Hopefully, once enough of the population has been vaccinated and the COVID restrictions can be relaxed, we’ll be able to open more. Right now, I just got there Saturdays on a regular basis, but normally I’d be up there probably four or five days a week to volunteer.
NNYB: Did the pandemic affect the number of volunteers as well?
KARON: Yes, we actually had a wonderful group from the Jefferson Leadership Institute that had taken on Sci-Tech as a project. I guess it was 13 people that were doing a major cleanup/ fixup. They were doing painting, they were helping us with a whole variety of things as their group project, and then COVID came along and, of course, that cut that right out. But, yes, during COVID we’ve had a drastic reduction in volunteers, and a number of our activities, such as our outreach programming has been drastically reduced. We have done a couple of outdoor astronomy nights, doing it in a COVID-safe fashion. Our traveling science program is basically on hiatus, because that really requires people to get together in an audience. What we have done to fill in, we’ve been putting out periodically what we call “science at home” emails with projects that parents and children can do at home using things that you have around the home. The last one was how to capture a snowflake and preserve it. So those have been pretty popular, and we’ve also tied in with the Technology Alliance of Central New York, TACNY. And they run normally an in-person lecture series-- actually two lecture series, one for adults and one for middle school students. During COVID, they’ve done those online. So, what we’ve been doing is offering them to our local community as well as an online lecture. So, COVID has changed a lot of our activities, but we are still providing science for the general public.
NNYB: In an average year, pandemic aside, how many yearly visitors would you guys normally have?
KARON: Normally we’d be around 10,000. The past few years it’s been between 8 and 10,000 each year.
NNYB: Have there been instances where people who used to visit as kids have now brought their own kids?
KARON: Yes, every so often. It’s been really exciting when someone comes in bringing a child, or grandchild in one case, and we get to talking, and they say that they came with a school group when they were in the sixth grade or fifth grade or whatever, and now they’re bringing their children to see Sci-Tech. So that’s always very exciting when that happens.
NNYB: Since this nonprofit started in the 80s, science and technology has changed quite a bit. How has the museum adapted to keep up?
KARON: Many of our exhibits are looking at the basic science; that doesn’t change very much. Maybe some understandings change, especially in more complex areas, but some of the basic science such as inertia and motion, and how you hear, how you see, that really doesn’t change. So, some of our exhibits are very traditional, but we’ve added to that. We have exhibits where you can look at what lives in a local pond, and actually manipulate the microscopes. We have what we call the rotary laser, which actually is a device that makes interesting patterns, but the patterns are the combination of two separate signals that are very important in measurement, and especially in measurement and communication techniques. So, we advise where you can manipulate two dials to change the frequencies of two light signals and see the result. We have a little bit of everything. We have a clock, electronic clock, powered by soda, ordinary diet soda. Our most popular exhibit is what’s known as the shadow room. The shadow room is a wall covered with a phosphorescent material and a strobe light, and what you do is you stand in front of the wall, the strobe light flashes, and then you step away from the wall and your shadow stays on the wall, and you see your shadow glowing on the wall. We have such simple things as a giant kaleidoscope, where you would duck into the kaleidoscope—because kaleidoscopes are really just three mirrors forming a triangle—and now you’re in the middle of that triangle, and you look at the mirrors and see millions of images of yourself. We have a small dinosaur area that has a four-foot Velociraptor model. And then some other dinosaur-related to things such as fossils and so forth. We have the sand pattern pendulum, which is actually two pendulums. So, you put a sand into a bucket you set the bucket swinging and sand drips out of the bucket and forms a pattern. And the pattern will always be the same. We have a couple of historic displays such as a very early radio, and the very earliest device to record sound- Edison recordings. We also have a display of space spinoffs --things that are in common use today, but were developed specifically for the space program. And although we only have about 10 different objects in the display, there are over 20,000 things that are now in common use that came about specifically because of the space program.
NNYB: What do you see as the future of the nonprofit? Are you ever tempted to expand?
KARON: We would like to add additional exhibits. We are sort of landlocked, our building. Although it has three floors, we unfortunately cannot use the third floor because it does not have legal egress. A couple years ago when we applied for the DRI funding, we’d hoped that we could have put in an elevator and second means of egress from that third floor so we could turn that into exhibit space, but currently we have only two floors that we can use. We are working on some exhibit upgrades. Some exhibits on sound, electricity, and light. We like to add into our exhibit repertoire, and we’re hoping to be able to find the funding to allow us to do that. But our major problem is raising the funds just to keep Sci-Tech in operation during these difficult times; not just COVID difficult, but difficult in general.
NNYB: Do visitors pay a fee to get in?
KARON: Right now, with COVID and only having a tiny portion of the building opened, that is free, but normally we have a slight admission charge; normally we’d be charging $3 for children and $4 for adults. We do have a membership program, and members pay an annual membership fee, and they have unlimited free admission to the Sci-Tech plus the use of what we think is a super benefit. We have joined with about 360 other science museums around the world, and we each offer free admission to each other’s members. So, our members can go down to Syracuse, for example, or Rochester, Buffalo or 20 other museums in New York state, or about 280 other museums around the United States. Three-hundred and sixty around the world, and at every one of those they will get free admission.
NNYB: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the museum?
KARON: Now that I’m in retirement, this is sort of my fun retirement activity, maintaining Sci-Tech and communicating to the community that decide Sci-Tech is there for everyone. It’s not just for children, although it’s designed to be exciting and fun for children, but it’s as much for adults as well. And we look at our exhibits as having a couple of different levels of involvement. We have the heavily hands-on activity, which everyone participates in, child or adult. And then we have the initial impression that people get from the exhibits, where you immediately understand something. And then we have captioning that expands that understanding, primarily for the adult or older child. The whole idea is to get people involved in science, get them thinking about things at Sci-Tech, and then hopefully when they go home, or the next day or the next week or next year, they see something out and then make a connection between something in their real world with something at Sci-Tech; and all of a sudden, they now understand something that without Sci-Tech, they would not have understood. The other thing, of course, our hope with Sci-Tech is that it fosters more young people, children, thinking about going into science or technology as a career. And that’s one of the areas that we think we can most benefit our local industry, that Sci-Tech helps to provide their future employees, future technologists, by getting kids interested and aware of science, science is fun. In fact, we have sort of a catchphrase that we call ourselves “a playground for the mind.” So, unlike the physical playground where you ride on the swings or a seesaw, at Sci-Tech we hope we get your mind involved in the fun of science. Our big hope is that more people will think of volunteering. We’re always looking for volunteers.
NNYB: How does somebody apply to volunteer?
KARON: Just give us a call or send us an email and let us know what their interest is, any particular area they’d like to get involved in, such as teaching a class or working on building or maintaining exhibits; just call or email, we’ll get them involved.
~This interview was conducted by Rachel Burt. It has been edited for length and clarity to fit this space.