I can think of no better pick-me-up than time spent with inspired folks who possess the creative vision and skill set to make amazing things happen. Better still is discovering that very sort of person in one’s own backyard!
Sharon Vegh Williams came to our community in Northern New York six years ago from Rochester, where she was working on her Doctorate in Literacy and Multicultural Education at the University of Rochester. Before graduate school, Sharon taught elementary school for over a decade in an urban school in Boston and a rural school on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. She is currently teaching part-time in the Education Department at St. Lawrence University.
Since her arrival here, Sharon has been a mover and shaker, doing important educational programming for children in our rural county. I first learned of Sharon through her work as co-founder of the North Country Children’s Museum. My own kids, along with so many others, have been the fortunate beneficiaries of her important work.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to talk recently with Sharon and now to share her exciting work with you. It’s my hope that her story may awaken in others the inspiration to impact one’s own neighborhoods in incredible ways.
Welcome to STEAM-Powered classroom, Sharon. I’d like to begin by talking about the type of programming North Country Children’s Museum offers as well as about the audience for whom it’s intended.
The North Country Children’s Museum is geared for children 13 and under and their families. We really see ourselves as serving the whole region. As far as exhibit development goes, we have partnered with faculty from all four local universities, heath professionals from the Canton-Potsdam Hospital, local business people, as well as artisans and artists in the community. We are slated to open brick-and-mortar doors in Old Snell Hall, downtown Potsdam in 2016. Until then, we run Saturday enrichment programs at the Clarkson University Bookstore. These programs are representative of our future exhibits. We are also grant funded during the summer months and have traveled to area festivals with exhibits such as RobotZone, Adirondack Science, and KidPower Health and Fitness. Next summer we will travel with a music and theatre exhibit developed by Crane and SUNY Potsdam faculty. This upcoming traveling exhibit is funded by the Northern New York Community Foundation.
The depth and breadth of the museum’s offerings is impressive. For readers not familiar with the North Country, ours is a very rural but remarkably diverse community. College professors, a large Amish community, farmers, as well as residents of numerous small villages in the surrounding areas live together in St Lawrence County. Potsdam, the largest city in the region and the future home of NCCM, has a population of just under 10,000 people.
Yes, it seemed that the North Country was ripe for such an institution. On the one hand, there is a wealth of diverse knowledge with faculty from the four local universities. Many people who move to the area for work have lived in other places where cultural resources such as children’s museums are the norm. So, the North Country Children’s Museum will be a real draw for young professionals to stay and raise their families. On the flip side, there are many other families and children in our region who have not had easy access to the types of cultural and educational programs that an interactive children’s museum provides. At NCCM, we see ourselves as providing these rich, educational experiences for all families in the North Country.
You didn’t always live in a rural area like this one. What sort of educational opportunities were available for children in your former hometown and how does that influence the work that you are currently doing here?
I grew up in the Washington DC area and spent my formative years at the Smithsonian museums. My first few years out of college, I worked at the Boston Children’s Museum. As an educator and parent, I have always been interested in how informal, interactive, and arts-based education can provide rich and powerful learning experiences for children. When my two boys were young, we lived very rurally on the Navajo Nation and frequented a small town Children’s Museum in Durango, Colorado. The Durango museum was started by interested and invested parents in the community. As my husband and I were relocating to Northern New York to be close to family, I was inspired to bring a similar institution to our new home. Having worked as an educator, both in public schooling and museum settings, for 25 years, I was able to bring my professional and personal experience to the initiative. At this point, we have an official non-profit board and close to 100 volunteers working toward this shared, community vision.
You mentioned that you currently offer Saturday enrichment programs at the local bookstore, which represent the types of exhibits that will be featured at the museum when it’s completed in 2016. How has this sort of programming enhanced NCCM’s presence in our community? Is this is a model you would recommend to others starting a similar venture?
Yes, we have been running our Museum Without Walls (MWOW) outreach programming on Saturdays during the school year at the Clarkson University Bookstore. We also have an exhibit each summer that travels to eight regional festivals. From the beginning, we have used the MWOW model to promote the museum. Many families in our region are unfamiliar with children’s museums, so MWOW helps to bring awareness and interest. It has also served to get programming started while we conduct our capital campaign. Although we are only half way there, we have raised over $300,000 to date through individual donors, foundations and grants. If you are interested in making a donation, please contact us!
Museums all over recognize that the time is right to incorporate STEAM education with their own exhibits. How does STEAM learning influence your programmatic decisions at NCCM?
STEAM came about in response to the emphasis on STEM over the last few years. STEAM puts the arts back into science and math education. I like to think we go beyond STEAM by bringing language and cultural knowledge into the mix. We really believe in an inquiry based, interdisciplinary approach to learning. In order to address the environmental and social issues that face humanity on a global scale, we need flexible, creative thinkers who can move around, beyond, and between disciplines. Providing children with opportunities to explore mathematics, engineering, language, and the arts in playful ways nurtures the creative problem solvers that our world so desperately needs. As far as our specific programs, we highlight the resources already in our community such as RobotZone through the Clarkson School of Engineering, and Sound Experience with the Crane School of Music. We also address local issues such as childhood obesity, which have affected rural America so profoundly. One of our exhibits, KidPower, developed in partnership with the Canton-Potsdam Hospital, teaches children about health and nutrition through play.
Parents speak often of the need for quality educational programming and activities for their children. However, often a perceived lack of finances, community support and other vital resources makes addressing such needs daunting. What inspires me so deeply about your story is your recognition of a specific need in the North Country and your ability to get out there and get the job done! What would you tell parents wishing to grow an educational institution for children in their own communities? What tools have you found to be most indispensable in pushing your project forward?
Well, the job isn’t done yet, but we are well on our way. Finding community partners and support, both on the individual and institutional level has been instrumental. My co-founder, April Vasher-Dean, a neighbor and friend, is also the Director of the SUNY Potsdam Art Museum. Between the two of us, we have years of experience in the education and museum world. We are also fortunate to live in an area where there is a tremendous wealth of skilled professionals who were eager to volunteer their time, energy and resources towards this project. Towards the beginning, we had Clarkson University conduct a feasibility study which gave us the confidence to move forward with fundraising and program development. NCCM also joined the Association of Children’s Museums which had a great resource book on starting and sustaining a museum.
Lastly, when you consider the outcomes of the work that you and your colleagues are achieving, what most excites you about NCCM’s role in our community?
We really strive to change the educational landscape of our community for the better. We hope to be a support and resource for families and schools. NCCM will provide a space for all children in the North Country to try on the role of scientist, engineer, artist, creator, thinker, and problem solver. Our exhibit on the Mohawk Nation in Akwesasne will give children a chance to learn about the diversity of cultures in our community, building empathy and understanding. To truly address the issues that confront humanity and the planet, we need to give access to all voices. In other words, we need children from all backgrounds to see themselves as active participants. We see NCCM as the door for children to explore being the scientist, artist, and thinker in order to discover their own gifts so they can share them with their communities and beyond.
Thank you, Sharon.
For more information, check out this video about the North Country Children’s Museum.
Have you brought a special program to your own community? Do you have an experience similar to Sharon’s? We’d love to hear all about it. Come on, inspire us!
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