Future uncertain as N.B. science centre approaches 25th anniversary

Science East chief science officer Michael Edwards stands in front of a funhouse mirror in the science centre on Brunswick Street in Fredericton. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC - image credit)
Science East chief science officer Michael Edwards stands in front of a funhouse mirror in the science centre on Brunswick Street in Fredericton. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC - image credit)

Science East, the New Brunswick science education not-for-profit housed in a historic jailhouse, is getting ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and staff are hoping it won't be the last.

"The clock is ticking — that's for sure," said Michael Edwards, the only person on staff when the science centre moved into its current Fredericton home, on Brunswick Street, on Aug. 9, 1999.

He's now one of just three permanent staff remaining out of a former complement of 11 since the centre closed to the public in February because of a shortage of funds.

In his view, the scaling down is no reflection of the value of what Science East does.

"For everyone to have a working knowledge of science is important," Edwards said.

A mural on the wall in a large room at the Science East centre in Fredericton that was used for things like science camps and demonstrations to tour groups.
A mural on the wall in a large room at the Science East centre in Fredericton that was used for things like science camps and demonstrations to tour groups.

A mural on the wall in a large room at the Science East centre in Fredericton that was used for things like science camps and demonstrations to tour groups. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

"New Brunswick needs Science East. Canada needs science centres. And we have to make sure we fight to keep both of those things happening."

It's a strange time for science centres, he said.

The Ontario Science Centre in Toronto is going through a similar process and also scrambling to figure out how it can maintain visibility, he said.

Not having a permanent hands-on centre is "really challenging," Edwards said.

Science East staff continued to visit schools and, with the assistance of three student summer employees, are staging as many pop-up events as possible around New Brunswick — at farmers' markets, summer reading clubs and other events.

WATCH | Interactive science displays like these will be at pop-ups around N.B. this summer:

"Science East remains active, providing opportunities for informal education about science and technology throughout New Brunswick," said Jennifer MacDonnell, the executive director, in an emailed reply to a request for an interview with a member of the board.

Since February, Science East staff have made presentations to 4,500 youths at 36 locations, MacDonnell said.

Science East's stick bugs are a big hit with kids, says a student summer employee.
Science East's stick bugs are a big hit with kids, says a student summer employee.

Science East's stick bugs are a big hit with kids, says a student summer employee. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

Despite the closure to the general public, the centre has remained open for organized tours and 1,200 people have participated in on-site programming since February, according to her email.

These tours honoured previous bookings, said Edwards. When asked to confirm whether organized tours would continue next school year, he did not, replying that programming would be delivered to students and teachers around the province.

Science East also led a successful provincial science fair program this spring, noted MacDonnell.

Seventeen New Brunswick students went to the national fair, said MacDonnell. Five entries won prizes:

  • Aalyzha Ferrer, Dr. Losier Middle School, junior excellence in astronomy, for research about plant growth in space.

  • John Neilson, Marshview Middle School, junior gold, for research on memory enhancement through listening to music.

  • Jack D'Entremont and Onkit Saha of Fredericton High School, silver, for a project on reusing high altitude weather balloons.

  • Kevin Cornell, Riverview High School, intermediate bronze, for a project on generating carbon-negative electricity from scrap metal combustion.

  • Alexia Tomasello, École Carrefour Beausoleil, senior bronze, for research on a filtration system to clean ocean water, inspired by the biology of basking sharks.

MacDonnell had no comment on any plans for the upcoming anniversary or whether the board has any interest in reopening the science centre in the old jailhouse to the general public.

Jennifer MacDonnell, Science East's executive director says the organization is actively pursuing funding and envisions being a destination for discovery and imagination.
Jennifer MacDonnell, Science East's executive director says the organization is actively pursuing funding and envisions being a destination for discovery and imagination.

Jennifer MacDonnell, Science East's executive director, says the organization is actively pursuing funding and envisions being a destination for discovery and imagination. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

The building dates back to the mid-1800s and is a designated provincial historic site for its architecture, which includes granite walls and jail cells, and for its jail artifacts, which are on display alongside the science exhibits.

MacDonnell did say that new financial support is being actively pursued.

Most of the operating revenue in recent years came from program delivery, Edwards said.

A physical building for Science East isn't strictly necessary, but it lends legitimacy, he said.

He'd like to see stable funding to help with operating costs, more staff at the centre, educators to travel the province and vehicles for them to travel in.

He is hopeful rebuilding will be easier the second time around.

Going back to its founding 30 years ago by "a ragtag collection" of people who thought hands-on science centres important, Science East began as a lean, grassroots group, he said.

Edwards was a biology graduate student at the University of New Brunswick when he first got involved in 1996.

He volunteered to help out with something and "got sucked in, completely."

He's now Science East's chief science officer.

Over the years, he's seen it grow and move around several times before settling into its current space.

A view of the rear exterior of Science East's home during the past 25 years, the historic York County Gaol.
A view of the rear exterior of Science East's home during the past 25 years, the historic York County Gaol.

A view of the rear exterior of Science East's home during the past 25 years, the historic York County Gaol. (CBC)

Science East's first location was in the National Exhibition Centre in the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame building. It then moved to King's Place and Brookside Mall, before arriving in the old jail.

By Edwards's calculation, Science East staff have interacted with more than a million people, including teachers, students and the general public, to share science knowledge in fun and engaging ways.

Some who visited the centre as children have returned with their children and some who attended Science East summer camps went on to become staff members, said Edwards.

It's exciting it's been around long enough to have that impact, he said.

Edwards would like to see the 25th anniversary marked by an open house.

He hopes people will attend to either experience the centre for the first time or share what Science East has meant to them.

With any small, non-profit organization, there's always the possibility things could look very different from one year to the next, he said.

"We don't want to just kind of fade away," said Edwards.

The Science East centre in Fredericton continued to host tour groups in recent months that had been pre-booked, but it's not clear whether that will continue next school year.
The Science East centre in Fredericton continued to host tour groups in recent months that had been pre-booked, but it's not clear whether that will continue next school year.

The Science East centre in Fredericton continued to host tour groups in recent months that had been already booked, but it's not clear whether tours will continue next school year. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

MacDonnell, the executive director, wasn't aware of any grants in the past that went toward operating or administration. Many school workshops since 2022 have been supported by funding from the federal department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, she said.

The science fair was put on with assistance from Youth Science Canada, school districts, volunteer chaperones, donors and sponsors including ABO Wind, C-Therm, Dillon, LuminUltra Technologies, McKenna Institute, NBCC, Smartskin Technologies and Teledyne Caris, she said.

"We envision that Science East will continue to be a destination for discovery and imagination," MacDonnell said.

"We are proud of our record of bringing science education to many communities and groups. We believe we can navigate through the negative impacts of the recent restructuring in February 2024 and become a stronger and more impactful organization."