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The Philadelphia Science Center Creates Success By Fusing Innovation, Art And Community

Philadelphia is having a rennaissance. Ignored by its big sister New York, the city is quietly producing major artists and tech start-ups worthy of note. Around 13 Billion worth from its incubator programs. It's enough to make those who still sniff at the idea of art when it comes to developing new tech, sit up and notice. Many around the world consider the current art + tech movement to be new, but it has been flourishing in Philadelphia since 1963 when the University City Science Center was established as an urban renewal project. Today, it is run by 31 academic institutions and shareholders and is a bustling amalgam of over 20 companies, labs, scientists and entrepreneurs with supportive mentorship and networking programs to help companies launch. It also has a slew of programs focused on bringing art and science together for the community creating a new paradigm of integration and win-win collaboration between businesses and citizens that will hopefully inspire similar structures in other cities.

It turns out Pennsylvania despite its steelworker and Amish image, has long been a big supporter of arts and culture. There is even a percentage arts law that stipulates 1% of construction costs for any building on land acquired and assembled by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, has to go to creating art near/on the building or towards a public art space.

Under the leadership of Stephen S. Tang, President and CEO, the Science Center has grown into an expansive campus with public spaces that feature local artwork and science projects open to the public. Four years ago, the center began a STEAM program for middle school kids called First Hand with the mission to “open doors to the minds of tomorrow.” For those not familiar, STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math. The program brings the excitement of learning alive to middle school kids and prepares them for careers after school by pairing them with scientist and entrepreneur mentors. David Clayton, who calls himself a “fearless creative” formerly from an industrial design background, believes kids often leave high school thinking there’s only a handful of possible careers. “That’s no longer true, today you can start a company with an iPhone and a laptop.” However, he's quick to note that “kids may be able to start a company with an iPhone but it takes sweat equity to be a successful entrepreneur.” By working with professionals, kids learn not just to design for tomorrow, but the steps it takes to make their dreams a reality.By working with nearby under-resourced schools, kids with limited access to educational opportunities and resources, the program is engaging kids to be future leaders who might otherwise fall through the cracks. As a kid who could have easily followed a lesser fate, I understand the incredible importance of teaching kids to see what is possible.

Here's how it works. During the course of a semester, students work on projects with professional mentors and scientists from over 20 nearby companies in a dedicated First Hand incubator lab in the Science Center. They get to ask important questions like “how did you succeed?” Each project begins with learning about things like bioplastics and electromagnetic fields and then in the second semester in the Amp It Up program they get to use design problem solving techniques to create products that solve real-world challenges. There’s also a dry lab with carpentry tools and 3D printers where kids can learn basic mechanical and carpentry skills that have gone by the wayside in most school programs. Even better, it’s not just the kids who benefit. Companies that are part of the Science Center's incubator program will hand students projects like how to create a new user experience, logo or product. Many of these projects have gone into production which enables First Handers to see all the steps from idea to prototype to market. Under David’s guidance the program has been recognized 2 times since 2015 for experience and excellence by US 2020 an organization that is leading the charge for STEM education in schools. While David loves the knowledge these kids are gaining, the most important part he says, “is to create a safe space for failure and a place where kids get to make a mess.” “They don’t get to fail in school anymore, and it’s an important part of success.”

As if a science center, start-up incubator, public art/science park and kid’s STEAM program weren’t enough, the Science Center also hosts the innovative Esther Kline art + science Gallery established in 1977. Under the tutelage of Randall Whaley, then president of the Science Center, who believed there needed to be stronger communication between art and science, the gallery began showcasing some of the brightest minds in America like Buckminster Fuller. Since it's inception, it has supported more than 3500 local and international artists. The Gallery also just celebrated its 40th anniversary with its new director Angela McQuillen who comes from a biology background. Under her guidance, the gallery is focusing on the work of bio-artists, like Paul Vanouse whose work was showcased for the anniversary last Fall. His America Project, an award-winning live scientific art experiment, took saliva samples from gallery visitors and extracted their DNA with a Electrophoresis gel. The resulting strands were put into an image of the American Flag projected on the wall during the November elections sending a clear message that our country is a melting pot.

The Esther Kline Gallery, hosts artist talks and performances in addition to exhibits and has been a strong and vital force in the community since its inception. The current exhibit is from Grizzly, Grizzly, a local artist collective, called A Mess Is Also a Snare which explores how technology connects both science and art and shows how neither field precedes the other, how each act upon each other to form new cultural and political ideologies. The Science Center, under Angela’s leadership is hosting its first bio+art residency this year with the internationally renowned artist Orkan Telhan who is working on a laboratory based art project that explores how the tongue perceives taste. In October, Kathy High will be opening an exhibit focused on gut bacteria. A Crohn’s disease sufferer, she began researching and found out that families tend to have similar gut flora. She’ll be making family crests from pictures of these micro-inhabitants of our bodies.

Not many people think of using the biology of our bodies as art. Some might even think it’s weird or strange, but in this brave new world of nano robots and self-driving cars does it not make sense? Art has always been about expressing and exploring the deep emotional impact of ourselves on ourselves. Perhaps such explorations will find use beyond art, in the health sector. If, through projects like taste, and an exploration of diseases like Crohn's we come to understand ourselves better, could that not help pharmaceutical companies and doctors to create better treatments? We are entering a brave new interdisciplinary world in which everything is connected. It gives me heart to see science, art, education and entrepreneurship coming together so beautifully at places like the Philadelphia’s University City Science Center.

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Kristen Fitch Headshot 2024

Kristen Fitch

Senior Director, Marketing