COVER STORY: Fueling an Enthusiasm for Learning
BY ASHLEY COOPER | PHOTOS BY JAMES BASS
Kate Bennett was ten years old when her parents whisked their family out of the cozy familiarity of Rochester into the Wild West for a brief… adventure of sorts. Crammed like sardines in the backseat of a car sans air conditioning, Kate and her siblings knew that this trip was a direct result of being born to parents determined to actively and innovatively nurture their children’s education. In fact, on multiple occasions, Kate’s parents encouraged their three kids to “poke around” tidal pools on their holidays in Maine, observing the local aquatic life.
“I grew up in a family that valued learning and informal learning opportunities,” says Bennett as she reminisces yesteryear in great fondness. “They made sure we had experiences that really turned us on to the world around us.”
But this particular, four-week pilgrimage out west would prove to be a significant breakthrough in young Kate’s life. All the trials and tribulations of the journey faded almost instantaneously in one exceptional wrinkle in time upon entering Mesa Verde National Park.
“When we came around the bend into that park, I saw a cliff dwelling that I had seen in a book. It had been in my fourth grade textbook,” says Bennett. “I realized that the place and the picture were the same. It still brings emotion to me because it was such a profound moment.”
What the mystified ten-year old Kate Bennett did not know then was that in her not too distant future, she would be able to grant others the same proverbial aha! experience in making connections between linear and hands-on learning. As President of RMSC, Bennett affords-each day-countless opportunities for individuals to process the educational resources at RMSC in the way that they know best. However, Bennett’s vision to appeal to a diversity of learning styles did not wholly originate at RMSC.
After graduating from Penfield High School, Bennett was eager to delve deeper into her lifelong passion for the natural sciences. She majored in ‘Anthropology’ at Smith College in Massachusetts and went on to obtain her M.S. in ‘Museum Education’ at Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan. It was in graduate school that Bennett embraced the psychology of multiple intelligences, or acknowledging that individuals vary significantly in terms of learning style. We learn best when we are given freedom to indulge in our particular style.
“I’ve been a fan of multiple intelligences since I got my Master’s degree in education,” says Bennett. “I think it was probably the most important thing I’ve learned. I know it’s true for myself, and I know it’s true for all the people in my life and the visitors we serve here [at RMSC].”
“I have a combination of learning styles,” Bennett goes on to say, “I’m very experiential. I like to be moving when I’m learning; my daughter has a great spatial style, so I’ve learned a lot from her.”
Bennett began her career as a trainee at the Rochester Museum & Science Center under the mentorship of Stephen Thomas, former RMSC Director. After one year, Bennett migrated to New York City where she would reside for the next 25 years, dividing those years between working at the American Museum of Natural History and running the Staten Island Children’s Museum as Director. Bennett returned to her home town in 1996 when she formally assumed position as President of the Rochester Museum & Science Center.
While Bennett has maintained the vision of her predecessors at RMSC in fueling the general public’s enthusiasm for learning, she has certainly prompted many unique and fruitful strides for the organization throughout her term. “There were many things that we needed to do immediately when I came. We knew that we wanted to partner with the community and vital organizations. We knew that we wanted to create a customer-focused and customer-friendly institution. We knew that we wanted to start providing deeper experiences in STEM learning-science, technology, engineering, and math-and, we knew we wanted to increase and improve the opportunity of volunteers in Rochester,” recalls Bennett of her initial experiences.
RMSC’s great staff works closely with university professors, local scientists and community supporters. Through this process, “We’re able to do things we could have never done on our own,” says Bennett.
For example, RMSC has collaborated with the Greece Central School District in implementing a program that allows developmentally-disabled children to engage in workforce preparation by participating in various projects on the museum campus each day. Another advantageous partnership includes one with Monroe BOCES #1 that was responsible for actualizing a space shuttle simulation known as the Challenger Learning Center at the Strasenburgh Planetarium and the Bathysphere Underwater Biological Laboratory (BUBL), which includes simulator rides taking visitors under Lake Ontario. RMSC also opened Genesee Community Charter School in 2001 directly on their campus which hosts grades K-6.
Bennett has also worked to ignite the potency of the RMSC volunteers-a truly vital part of the institution. “We have the most fabulous volunteers,” stresses Bennett, “We had good volunteers when I came- a very good basis and we’ve grown it several times in terms of the efficacy and how the volunteers help us every day.”
According to Director of Marketing and Community Affairs Debra Jacobson, RMSC hosts over 700 volunteers who come from a wide range of professions. “Some of our volunteers are very skilled and knowledgeable scientists and engineers,” says Jacobson, who went on to say that many even hold a PhD in their field and act as technical advisors.
“They’ve helped us build exhibits,” says Bennett, “and the ‘Women’s Council,’ which is a seventy year old volunteer group that was here long before I came, has become even more effective in fundraising and as ambassadors of the institution.”