River District Stories: Danville Science Center

By: Kirsten Aherron with Adam Goebel

Interview with Adam Goebel, Executive Director of the Danville Science Center

Can you speak about the Science Center’s Mission?  

The Danville Science Center is a division of the Science Museum of Virginia and is their first satellite location. Our mission is to inspire our visitors to enrich their lives through science. We want people to think about their world differently, to look at it through the lens of science and how science affects all facets of their daily life.  What does that mean? I often tell people that if our guests have left here with more questions than when they arrived, then we have succeeded in our mission. 

Can you tell us more about the history of the Science Center and your new exhibits and activities? 

Legend has it that the former CEO of the Science Museum of Virginia, Dr. Walter Witchey visited Danville with his wife Virginia Vincent who was from Danville and had a conversation around the dinner table with her family, and the idea “You should start a Science Center in the Danville Train Station” emerged.  A group was tasked with raising the initial seed money back in 1994. We opened in December of 1995, and have made incremental transformations over the 27 years. 

In 1995 we repaired and remodeled the train station.  In 1999 we added the Butterfly Station- a garden and seasonal greenhouse full of native and excotic butterflies.  In 2005 we rehabbed the former Southern Railway administrative building, adding approximately 15,000 additional square feet of public exhibit space. We also have outdoor campuses. For example, we have an outdoor River Lab where we take students to do water quality testing and to learn about watersheds, point source and non point source pollution and how land use activities affect the water quality of the river. 

Back in 2014, we  opened up southern Virginia's first and only truly immersive digital dome theater that doubled our attendance in just one year. Building off of that success, the leadership team and the board of directors was tasked with creating a new strategic plan, a new vision that would guide the organization over the course of the next five years. We engaged focus groups composed of members, past members, teachers, donors, community leaders, stakeholders,  and created an inclusive plan that was adopted in 2016. One of the main priorities was to take a look at our facilities, our offerings, and how to make them better, more relevant, more accessible, as well as more repeatable.  

One of the key points that emerged was the need for an age and developmentally appropriate space for young learners (zero - 5 years). We designed Crescent Crossing which is a unique one of a kind space, truly dedicated to our youngest learners. You won’t see the exhibit anywhere else in the world.  The area was designed around the theme of the Crescent Crew, a cast of woodland creatures who travel the Crescent line.  The name came from the fact that Danville is on the Crescent line, and the Science Center is located at the Crossing at the Dan.  This was phase one of our plan.  

Phase two involved the main building where we updated 10,000 square feet of space into brand new state of the art public exhibit space in the form of two main signature galleries called Water and Go.   The Water exhibit uses water as the common theme to weave through multiple scientific disciplines from earth science to biology to astronomy to conservation and environmental education. The Go exhibit explores the intersection between the human body and the physical machine through kinesthetic experiences designed to get  guests up and moving. These experiences explore physical experiences and mechanical experiences focusing on motion and energy. For example we have an exhibit where you can shoot a free throw and then see it’s trajectory tracked with sensitive technology next to a catapult where guests can apply their new found knowledge, the principles of trajectory and angles, to try to hit different targets at different distances.

These two galleries opened in November of 2020, along with our JT Minnie Maude Charitable Trust Creativity Lab, which is a high end challenge and makerspace.  We do different challenges every week designed for ages 8 to 13 and above. 

The whole master planning process was focused on how to become more multi-generational to include not only the youngest of our visitors, but also high school students, adults, and senior citizens. Implementing this master plan and the transformation it created, we were able to figure out a way to have something for everyone. Additionally, our focus for this transformation was not only to be multi-generational as mentioned before, but also to be regionally relevant and  locally connected. Many of our exhibits and experiences are focused around the Dan River. 

We not only offer experiences in our galleries and creativity lab daily, but we are starting to again offer birthday parties and small group activities. We also offer virtual programming monthly on Facebook called,  Zoom into the V.O.I.D, which is our Virtual Online Interstellar Discussion.  It is a free live planetarium show each second Tuesday of the month at noon.  We invite you to grab lunch and your computer and join us to learn a little bit about what's going on in the nighttime sky that month.  We do many events for different audiences and groups.  We have sensory friendly events throughout the year. We participate in a lot of festivals and community events. We also offer outreach where we go to daycare, schools, organizations if transportation is an issue. 

What is your background and how did you become involved with the Science Center? 

I was born in Tennessee, but raised in Martinsville from the age of five through high school.  I ended up in Danville going to Averett College to study biology.  I have always loved the outdoors, and when I was a child I wanted to be game warden or park ranger.  As soon as I graduated from Averett I took an internship with the federal government’s Department of the Interior doing wildlife education programming up and down the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  During my internship I was alerted by one of my professors that there was a part-time opening at the Danville Science Center. So I applied and was hired part time in August 2001 and became full-time in 2002.  Since then I have slowly worked my way up, becoming the third director of the Science Center in 2015.  I am a firm believer in the power of people starting in an organization and working their way up from the ground up.  I started sweeping floors and cleaning, and working the front desk.  When someone does that, they see the value of hard work and determination, and what it takes to truly run an organization from the ground up.  I have been there and know the trials and tribulations, and challenges of the front desk, housekeeping and other staff positions because. And I think that makes my job of managing and running the Science Center more effective.  It also helps me guide what is next because I know how important having amenities like the Science Center are to the fabric of the community.  

Do you believe the Danville Science Center is an important part of the River District? If yes, in what way?

The Science Center is definitely an important part of the River District, and the greater Danville community.  We often year “I had no idea Danville had something like this!” Danville deserves world class facilities, programs and events.  When you think about a community of this size, it speaks volumes about the community’s history and commitment to quality of life that we have an organization like this.  

I think that the Science Center helped spur a lot of what's been going on not only at  The Crossing at the Dan, but also in the River District. Back in 1995 there wasn't much down here other than the Science Center. I feel like we were an anchor organization and played a major part in the revitalization of downtown Danville and the River District.  

Another value we bring to the community is that we were the first in the region to participate in what’s called the Museums for All Initiative.  It is a program from the Institute of Museum and Library Services where families who receive any type of benefits such as SNAP, EBT can get into the Science Center for $1-2 per person.  Or they can sign up for a whole year’s membership for $20.  Our membership program is unique unto itself.  For a small fee, a family of two adults and all children under the age of 18 can visit the Science Center for free all year.  We also participate in a reciprocal program with the Association of Science and Technology Centers, which includes over 250 other museums that reciprocate with our membership. For example, you can take our membership and go to the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond for free as well as many more across the country.  Our membership not only gets you into multiple museums for free, but you get special newsletters, discounts on birthday parties and in our gift shop. Our Family Membership is $90 for the year.  

For more information about Membership and other programs at the Danville Science Center visit their website at https://dsc.smv.org/.