by Mallory Moad
Remember the story of the Little Engine That Could? With his determination and persistence, that little locomotive became a role model for beating the odds. Here in Fresno, we have our own incarnation of that unstoppable hero on wheels. And although it is less mobile, it is every bit as inspirational.
From fires to recessions and Covid 19, the Fresno Discovery Center has encountered its share of obstacles during sixty-eight years of operation. But with each recovery, it has emerged stronger and better than before. Closing the doors permanently was never an option.
Established in 1954 by two biology instructors from Fresno City College (then known as Fresno Junior College), the Fresno Junior Museum of Science and Natural History placed an emphasis on education. Classes were taught on natural sciences and history, and exhibits of artifacts representing the flora, fauna, and indigenous people of the Central Valley were open to the public. In 1979, the Women’s Junior League of Fresno helped transform the collection of classes, displays, and live animal exhibits into a more inclusive format which became the Fresno Discovery Center.
What’s the Fresno Discovery Center’s secret to its longevity? According to Fresno Discovery Center Director, Melissa Telemeco, it’s keeping up with changing times and the needs of the community. Once upon a time, museums of any kind were “look, but don’t touch.” Now the concept is closer to “look and get your hands dirty.” Melissa explains, “In recent history, the Discovery Center was known as a children’s science museum. Today we are working to be a more family-oriented science center with hands-on exhibits where families can learn and explore together.”
Regularly scheduled special events, such as Science Saturday, have become popular with all ages. “Science Saturday happens once a month and is led by NASA’s Solar System Ambassador, Susan Morrison,” Melissa says. Through different activities that focus on all things space (many of which are developed and sponsored by NASA), participants get the opportunity to learn about cool things like drones and range rovers, planets and moons, and current space missions.
Another monthly happening that, while family-friendly, is of particular interest to adults: Cafe Scientifique. Based on the model that originated in England in 1998 (which was inspired by something similar happening in France), this once a month event features a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) professional. The program opens with a short presentation that leads to the most important part, an interactive, and potentially lively, discussion with those in attendance. Melissa describes it this way: “It is fun and educational for the public, provides transparency and accountability in science, and lets scientists know what their community values, what concerns they hold, and what they think should be studied.”
Run by a small paid staff and numerous devoted volunteers, The Discovery Center has stayed operational thanks to donations, memberships, and special functions like summer camps. Science is a big deal, especially with inquisitive kids, and these camps fill up fast. Each five-day camp covers a different STEM topic such as astronomy, paleontology ,and engineering and includes daily hands-on activities relating to the subject. It’s a fun, slyly educational way to fend off summer boredom.
Another source of income for the Fresno Discovery Center is birthday parties. “We love birthday parties! Our birthday parties include admission to all our exhibits, playground, pond, and gardens. Guests can customize their party by adding an animal encounter, science experience, or bounce house.” On the day of my visit, party guests were busily making fossils under the guidance of Priscilla Mendoza, who also serves as the Discovery Center’s animal care expert.
Speaking of animals, the Fresno Discovery Center is home to a number of critters. Some are furry, like the two super-sized, chocolaty-brown rabbits named Nala and Simba (yes, Simba has a mane). Others are scaly and have names like Bowser, a magnificent sulcata tortoise, and Mercury, a desert tortoise. Although the Discovery Center has a dedicated reptile room, it is closed to the public for now, due to the need for maintaining a constant temperature and humidity. But plans are in place for access that won’t allow heat and moisture to escape, so you can look forward to visiting Norman, the water dragon, and all his reptilian friends in the near future.
Although there is plenty to see and do at the Discovery Center, from hands-on science exhibits to a cactus garden and playground (complete with rock climbing wall), it is not an especially noisy place. There are no flashing lights or loud bells, making this an appropriate, yet still enjoyable place for visitors who may have sensory or sensitivity issues. There are also areas on the grounds that are more secluded, just right for taking a break from activity.
Since the closing of the Fresno Met Museum in 2010, the Fresno Discovery Center is the only game in town when it comes to all things science. So if, like me, you’re kind of a science nerd or are just interested in a family-friendly experience that’s more affordable and educational than the latest blockbuster movie, come on down. You can look, but you can touch, too.
My name is Mallory Moad, and I believe science is real.