Port Jefferson Maritime Explorium engages children in STEM subjects

Maritime Explorium from Hanaa’ Tameez on Vimeo.

Port Jefferson, N.Y. is making math and science fun again.

 Located on East Broadway, the Maritime Explorium, which first opened its doors in 2005, provides parents and children in the area a space to participate in educational, hands-on activities together while also exposing children to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in an environment that highlights Long Island’s maritime history and heritage.

“It was a vision of many professionals in the area who felt there was nothing in Port Jefferson that they constructively they could do with their children,” Carole Van Duyn, a retired teacher who now works at the Explorium, said. “They felt there was wonderful shopping, wonderful restaurants but nothing for them to engage with their children and actively play with them.”

Loud, busy and bustling, the Explorium inhabits the historic Chandlery Building that was originally owned by the Bayles family. In the early 20th century, it was used as a warehouse for ship and boat supplies and is now about the size of a two-story, three bedroom home. Although it is only open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the weekends, it receives between 40 and 50 visitors of all ages each day. Visitors pay $5 per person and members and children under 1 enter free of charge. Memberships for families with one child is $50 a year and each additional child adds $25 to the membership cost.

The Explorium was originally named The Childrens Maritime Museum, but was renamed to better reflect the facility’s interactiveness. It was reopened as the Maritime Explorium in 2011.

“We felt the Maritime Explorium really addressed the activities and our STEM focus,” Van Duyn said. “We used to be The Children’s Maritime Museum and many people said ‘what do you have to look at?’ rather than exploring all the different opportunities and challenges.”

At a station that consists of a lifesize boat full of rice, children learn to make educated guesses and estimate how much rice can fit in different containers. Sitting outside the boat is Katy Johnston, a writing professor at Stony Brook University and a first time visitor with her daughter Helena. She said was impressed with the explorium’s accommodation of younger children.

“We are loving it,” Johnston said. “[Helena’s] only 19 months old so I wasn’t sure if it would be age-appropriate for her. I figured this place would be geared towards older students and children and as it turns, out there’s lots of fun things for toddlers here.”

In terms of the learning environment, Johnston said the focus on the STEM subjects is apparent, but the Explorium is also designed to cater to each age group.

“The STEM subjects at this age, that comes down to really that sign right there,” she said, pointing to table with a tray of seashells.  “[It] says ‘can you sort any of these objects’, can you find any patterns, what properties can you identify, things like sorting, stacking, those are the sort of natural activities that toddlers are interested in.”

At another exhibit, children are given the tools to build a circuit to provide electricity in a lighthouse. There’s also a signal center where they can send messages back and forth to one another using pictures and morse code.

For others, the Explorium is less of an educational space and more of a place for families to spend time together. While the Explorium does allow parents to drop their children off for a couple of hours, most choose to stay. Herman Werner, who is a member of the Maritime Explorium’s Board of Directors, brings his granddaughter on Sundays and enjoys it himself.

“There’s so much to do. It’s not something where you just sit back and you just let the child play,” Werner said. “There’s so much even for the adults to do, especially working with the children. It keeps the parents interested.”

As a nonprofit organization, Van Duyn said that most of the money comes from grant writing and private donations. In 2013, the Explorium was the recipient of the Selma Greenberg Memorial Fund Grant, which gave the Explorium $5,000 in support of STEM for Girls at the Maritime Explorium.

According to the Explorium’s income tax exemption form, in 2011 it received $124,777 of its $162,872 total revenue from contributions, gifts, grants and other similar donations. $1,125 came from membership and visiting fees.

However, the amount that children learn and the skills they gain at the Explorium play a role in its growing membership.

“They’re moving from one thing to another and they’re using their mind,” Van Duyn said. “It’s all spatial relationship and all constructivist engineering science but they’re all having fun for two, three hours. Almost always the parents then buy a membership for a full year and bring their friends. It’s mostly word of mouth.”

Maggie, a seven-year-old from Port Jefferson, has been a frequent Explorium visitor since she was three. While she has outgrown some of the attractions, there are still other activities she can participate in.

“I really like doing the marshmallows and toothpicks [to build structures] and sending messages,” she said. “I used to like playing in the rice boat but I don’t really like it anymore. I just feel like I can’t fit anymore.”

But for Van Duyn, no matter how old the children get, the Explorium experience is enjoyable all around.

“When I retired, my husband said to me, ‘you’re going to miss working with the children’,” she said. “It’s just so exciting to play, to actively play and constructively play and lead children to those ‘ah-ha’ and ‘wow’ moments.”

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