Emerald Coast Science Center (ECSC) is an interactive, STEM-focused discovery center located in Fort Walton Beach, in Okaloosa County, FL. Led by Executive Director Diane Fraser, ECSC displays over 45 exhibits, including robotics and live animals, within 8,000 square feet of indoor space and two acres of property.
In 2018, ECSC debuted its newest exhibit, SMALLab, funded via a grant from the IMPACT100 of Northwest Florida. ECSC is one of only three museums in the United States with a SMALLab.
The Emerald Coast Science Center prides itself on having exhibits that are interactive, hands-on, and engaging for both children and adults. “We’re always looking for new forms of innovation and for new ways to do things,” said Fraser. “It’s through innovation and versatility that we can maximize our impact on the local community and increase their knowledge and appreciation of science and technology.”
However, many museums—including ECSC—face the reality that deploying new exhibits is costly and time-consuming. As a result, keeping content “fresh” and enticing visitors to return on a regular basis are significant challenges.
Fraser first saw SMALLab in action during the 2016 Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) Annual Conference in Tampa, FL .Because SMALLab is a virtual interactive space, Fraser quickly realized that SMALLab was exactly the solution she needed to create a versatile museum space capable of supporting a variety of always-changing activities.
“Walking back to the hotel after experiencing SMALLab, I couldn’t stop saying to myself, ‘We could do this’ and ‘We could do that’,” said Fraser. “I think it was that versatility that was so appealing.”
Taking the next step, Fraser applied to IMPACT100 for a grant that would fund installation of SMALLab at ECSC. The mission of IMPACT100 is to provide financial support to local non-profits in Okaloosa and Walton County, Florida. Fraser applied to the northwest Florida region in her area.
Commenting on the potential she saw in Fraser’s application, Lisa Jo Spencer, President of IMPACT100 of Northwest Florida, said, “To know that they [ESCS] were going to get something so state-of-the-art… it’s fulfilled all of our dreams.”
With SMALLab, Fraser can run many different types of activities and even customize them to each audience. “With field trips, we typically start out with Color Streamers and then we move into Order Line or Sort It Out,” said Fraser. “We always save Memory for last because it gets the students working together. They leave the room and they’re cheering and they’re high-fiving. That’s a really impactful feeling.” Fraser adds, “The feedback we get from the students… and also how much the teachers enjoy it has been phenomenal.”
With SMALLab, the Emerald Coast Science Center is also seeing increased interest from companies, non-profits, and adult patrons. “We’re reaching out and targeting an adult-only audience and trying to get people to rethink they way they look at museums,” stated Fraser.
No matter the audience, awareness of ECSC’s SMALLab is increasing. “We’re currently booking field trips nine months in advance and we have entire weeks filled seven months from now. SMALLab has been a great addition to the Emerald Coast Science Center.”