The Museum’s Foundations, Fundraisers and Beyond

Wisconsin and Madison are destinations for sporting events, art exhibits and plays, music and festivals, and the outdoors. But despite Wisconsin being a top research state in the U.S., other Midwest states still have the upper hand on science museums that offer locals and visitors interactive experiences with science. A group of Wisconsinites is trying to change that with a Wisconsin Science Museum – a place where people can hear the stories behind major research and discoveries and engage with science themselves – and they are looking for interested members of the community to help by volunteering time, resources, connections, and stories.

Founded in October 2015 in a temporary location on the 6th floor of the Madison Area Technical College (MATC) building on N. Carroll Street in Madison, the board of the Wisconsin Science Museum recently began scaling up efforts to build a permanent location in Wisconsin. They have begun work on details to be part of the Nolen Waterfront Project – a 20- to 30-year project that will create a public green-space and developments over John Nolen Drive in Madison. The goal, according to executive director Arianna Murphy, is to make the museum “one of the preeminent museums.” A place that would house the stories connected to research in Wisconsin and have hands-on exploration of ideas and opportunities for conversations.

Besides cheese (and often because of cheese), one of Wisconsin’s biggest economic sectors is research. As a result, the history of science in Wisconsin is the history of major discoveries and advances in not only agricultural fields, but in human life and health sciences, earth sciences, and social sciences. For those who don’t do scientific research, however, such discoveries often are told as one more history date or list of facts, with little of the original interesting details left. The role of the museum, as one of the founders and current board president Dave Nelson, emeritus Biochemistry professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, described it, is to “put flesh and blood on the otherwise barebones of science.” Nelson started the museum because he saw a need for a place located in the community that provided opportunities to engage with science beyond temporary science events on campus, and wanted it centered where it would be more publically accessible, both in terms of parking and its open hours.

Starting a museum from scratch is a long process, though. And the museum is non-profit and separate from UW, so the work to do this depends on donations and help from people in the community.

To begin its scaled up fundraising efforts, the Wisconsin Science Museum held an event that brought together members of the museum with top researchers at UW-Madison on Thursday evening, September 28 at Cooper’s Tavern, for a discussion on human gene editing and the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. Researchers Alta Charo, a professor of Law and Bioethics at the UW-Madison School of Law, and Dietram Scheufele, a professor of science and political communication at the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication, presented an overview of human gene editing – both the science and the ethical questions tied to it and how discussion is needed to determine how we want the science to develop and be used (or not used) as a society. The discussion covered how CRISPR allows us to more and more easily make changes to human genes, which means we could treat serious genetic diseases, such as Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis, but also raises the possibility of making lasting changes to what physical characteristics are considered normal in humans, such as strength and height. Because the tool is so versatile, Charo and Scheufele both described how different applications will have different levels of acceptability and require different regulations, and the public will be key to helping determine what those levels of acceptability and regulations are.

Highlighting how Wisconsin is often at the center of cutting-edge science research and of conversations on how to make the research accessible to people outside of scientific researchers, both Charo and Scheufele recently served on the National Academies of Sciences Committee that wrote a report on the state of gene editing for humans and how we need more public conversations on the science. Charo served as co-chair and Scheufele served as the science communication expert. UW-Madison also houses some of the top biology research labs in the U.S., which conduct much of the work on gene and cell editing research.

The fundraiser provided an opportunity for people to engage with the researchers on these questions, something the museum hopes to continue and at a larger scale as it develops into a permanent fixture. But it also showcased how the history of science in Wisconsin is constantly developing because of Wisconsin’s place at the forefront of research. The Wisconsin Museum of Science would be a record of stories of the state’s science and discoveries, but because of the pace of research in the state, that includes stories of now and of the future. As captured by the Wisconsin Idea, that also means these stories are part of making the research matter beyond the lab.

The museum in its current location has already begun scaling up the exhibits, and Murphy said that since February 2017, they have seen a huge amount of growth. School groups regularly come in on field trips, and tourists often visit despite the somewhat inconspicuous location after having found the museum online. Different colored lights fill the hallways, which, because the museum is located in what used to be a floor of a school, are filled with lockers, now covered with bright murals. The exhibits are a mixture of history, modern science, art, and interactive displays. The newest exhibit follows Norman and Wilma Erway, who ran a glass-blowing shop out of the basement of their family home in Oregon and supplied UW with custom glass for chemistry and laboratories for decades. Norm Erway, the head of the operation, had also worked on the Manhattan Project, so the exhibit includes documents from his time on that research. Another exhibit focuses on lasers, from the extreme (brain surgery) to what we take for granted (bar code scanner) with plenty of opportunities to interact with the lasers, safely. There are several other exhibits including an art installation that follows the work of physicist Robert Wood, who developed infra-red and ultra-violet photography, but also studied the way senses interact or overlap – for example, by seeing how different sound waves create different shapes as they move through sand, combining the visual and auditory. According to Murphy, the glow-in-the-dark black light installations in this exhibit are a field trip favorite. The museum also has pop-up exhibits it loans to libraries and community centers, such as the Monona and Milton Libraries and the Boys’ and Girls’ Club of Dane County. These include exhibits on women in the space program (in which you can make constellations out of fiber optics or decide how you’d pack a suitcase for a trip to Mars), urban farming, and how a lot of discoveries in Wisconsin seemed to have started with a cow (such as realizing dairy cows were missing something from their diet, which lead to the discovery of vitamins).

Altogether the current location of the museum provides what director of advancement Zack Robbins describes as “proof of concept,” one the board and directors are ready to now fully expand on. Both Murphy and Robbins have studied the paths that other museums took as they developed, and the range of experiences is large: from the Science Museum of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, which moved five times over 90 years as it grew from a few installations to a 600-employee institution, to the Michigan Science Center, which grew relatively quickly from 2012 to now out of the ashes of the Detroit Science Center. The Wisconsin Science Museum is also emerging at an interesting time for museums, when the ideas of what constitutes the role of museums are changing. Pop-ups, such as those the Science Museum already runs, are now a normal part of a museum’s role, to bring exhibits directly to different communities. Combining art and science is also becoming more common with the Science Gallery movement, which the Wisconsin Science Museum is already expanding into with its art installations. The Museum was also a site for Gallery Night in Madison on October 6, 2017. The newest avenue the Wisconsin Science Museum is moving down is incorporating online and game experiences. Filament Games, the Madison-based video game development company, recently started collaborating with the Wisconsin Science Museum to plan gaming and VR science experiences for the Museum.

Overall, the Wisconsin Science Museum is at a stage where it is already reaching members of the community and growing in new ways to build on that relationship and create more opportunities to engage with science. At this early stage, the Museum especially is interested in working with anyone in the community who has ideas, suggestions, or opportunities for fundraising and development as it works towards its goal of becoming a permanent place for Wisconsinites and visitors to experience and share science and stories. If you are interested in being involved or you know someone in the community who think would be a good resource for the museum, the directors ask that you contact them at or by phone at (608) 216-5496. You can also check out the museum at 211 N. Carroll, Madison, WI on the 6th floor of the MATC building, or visit its website to learn more about current exhibits and the museum goals at

This piece was written by Emily L. Howell, a graduate student at the Nelson Institute and the Life Science Communications program at the University of WI – Madison. 

Posted by Mariel Mohns, 0 comments

Daring to be Inspired at the Women in STEM Symposium

Our first Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) Symposium was held on Saturday, November 5th and was a great success!

20 high school girls attended with their eyes and ears focused on learning from an amazing panel of speakers and expo vendors.

Dr. Ahna Skop gave the opening Keynote address, “Too creative for science?” and encouraged attendees to think outside the dichotomies of science and art and instead use creative thinking to bridge the gap of how science is perceived in the public eye.

Allison Salmon shared her experience as a video game developer, and how she fell into a career in software engineering after graduating as a computer science major.

Dr. Erika Marín-Spiotta challenged the way we think about the earth sciences – as a global system between people and places that can help us understand how to shape our future.

Erica Naughton shared her experience as a creative, jumping into the world of web development and graphic design through enrolling in YWeb Career Academy, a program that provides opportunities to women, people of color and others who are underrepresented in the tech industry.

Dr. Mary Fitzpatrick closed the panel by inspiring us to think differently and engage with others who have diverse ideas and perspectives to create better working teams that can inspire innovations and solutions for complicated problems.

Our lunch break offered time for students and speakers to break into smaller groups and continue conversations that were prompted by questions asked during the panel. There was even a deep in-depth discussion about Star Trek that happened!

In the afternoon, attendees explored the museum exhibits – they wondered about lasers, traveled through our hallway timelines, looked at the world from perspectives large and small in the imaging exhibit, and more.

We also had representatives at Expo stations from Epic, Four Lakes Wildlife Center, Filament Games, Creative Kingdoms, and Population Diagnostics who shared about their work and helped to inspire future careers in STEM fields.


To learn more about opportunities for women in STEM, check out the following links:
White House – Women in STEM
Women in NASA
Ada Lovelace Day
Engineering Challenges
Engineer Girl
Girls Who Code


Posted by Mariel Mohns

Meet a Volunteer: Sean Size

77f47b20-a350-4c2b-af77-889d80b0d555Get to know one of our volunteers! Sean has been hard at work doing carpentry and construction projects for our exhibits. Our science communication volunteer, Mariel Mohns, had a chance to sit down and interview Sean about his work.


MM: Thanks for taking the time to meet! To start off, what is your background – what do you do for a living?
SS: I’m a remodeling carpenter and project manager, so I do a lot of high end custom building.


MM: And that makes sense given what you’ve been doing for the museum. Can you describe some of the projects you’ve been working on?
SS: I started out working on little odds and ends – it doesn’t seem like a lot since it’s only a few hours of work at a time – but the big thing we just finished was building a curved wall to hide the kitchenette. Next I’ll be working on building a cabinet for the Periodic Table of Motion. I also helped build the box for the Infinity Mirror, which has since been passed on to someone else to complete.


MM: Can you tell us a little bit about the Periodic Table of Motion and the process of tackling a project like that?
SS: Sure. It’s similar to the Periodic Table of Elements, but with the idea of motion being made up of simple machine parts: block & tackle, gears, motors, etc. So each 9x9in box will have different assembly parts which will have a conductive switch so that kids (or adult-kids-at-heart!) can touch and interact with to illustrate simple movement.


MM: That’s awesome! I think the interactive exhibits we have will be really unique for learning and inspiring. How did you first get involved with volunteering for MSM?
SS: Well, I’m a member at Sector67, and they put out a call for help during one of the first volunteer working days. I showed up with my tools and realized that they could use help in my area of expertise. There’s a group of people from Sector67 that are also involved, Chris Meyer (the director of Sector67) has been a big contributor in coordinating and doing work for the museum.


MM: That definitely recapitulates the collaborative efforts in working on these types of projects for the museum. Are there any exhibits that your are most looking forward to seeing?
SS: I helped a bit with setting up the space for the first artist (Floor van de velde) – mounting projectors and such – but didn’t get a chance to see the final installation, so I’m curious to see all of those elements come to life together. I know a little bit about the other projects to know that the museum will be a neat space, and that’s why I’ve been happy to help volunteer my time.


MM: I agree. It will definitely be a great space with a lot to explore. Why do you think a science museum is important for Madison/Wisconsin?
SS: I think it’s important for people to recognize the value of science, and the fact the we live in a culture surrounded by technology, it’s easy to dismiss as something that’s only relevant for a small niche group of people. I think it’s potentially dangerous, especially politically, to undermine the importance of research and innovation. I think it will also hopefully be a different audience than say, the Children’s Museum, where I loved taking my daughter when she was a kid, but now she’s 15. So the Science Museum offers something similar but for a different crowd – as a place for parents and adults, but also a place to bring families and kids to learn something new.


MM: Exactly. Science is something that is applicable for everyone at every age. We all use science in one way or another in our daily lives. Despite not being a scientist, do you have a favorite scientific fact or concept?
SS: That’s a tough question! Maybe the fact that the majority of what we’re made out of is water. It’s a simple idea, but it’s something to appreciate more and more as water becomes more expensive and scarce. Water is something that we often take for granted how valuable it is.


MM: Good answer! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat and for all your hard work with the museum! 
SS: Sure. Thanks for doing what you do, too. It’s great to have the collaborative effort for all the different working parts of the museum.
Posted by Mariel Mohns

Welcome to the WSM blog!

Welcome to the Wisconsin Science Museum blog. This space will be updated with posts that dive deeper into the scientific topics featured in our exhibit space, feature behind-the-scenes updates for museum happenings, and hopefully inspire you to discover, wonder, and connect with the science and technology around us.

Join us as we continue to explore the rich history of scientific discovery in Madison and Wisconsin!

Posted by Mariel Mohns