Aide to every science teacher in Arkansas — and beyond

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published March 10, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated March 8, 2013 at 12:44 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Diane LaFollette is the new executive director of the Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs. She was reviously chief operations officer for the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock.

Diane LaFollette works in a place many children in Arkansas and surrounding states dream about. After only a few weeks at the job, she admits she still likes to do some exploring when she has the time, but she suspects she will always do that.

LaFollette is the new executive director of the Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs, but if asked her profession, she does say she runs a museum.

“I love teaching science,” she said earlier this week while walking through the museum’s exhibits during a day when it was closed. “This is a place designed for getting kids excited about science and getting people involved with science.”

She had been chief operations officer for the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock before she was named to lead Mid-America in December. LaFollette said she “really likes” her new job at Mid-America.

“Children remember what they can get into and experience for themselves,” she said. “I think that is why so many people remember their visits here and why so many people come back over the years.”

People smile and are eager to tell her stories about “the time they went to the museum” every time she mentions where she works.

“They say, ‘I was there as a kid,’ or ‘I take my children or grandchildren there.’ It is a common story in the lives of the people of Arkansas.”

LaFollette was well known before coming to Hot Springs because she had been running another of the most popular museums in the state — the Museum of Discovery/Donald W. Reynolds Science Center in Little Rock.

“I started there over 16 years ago as a part-time educator at the Museum of Discovery. I enjoyed helping children learn anatomy, physics, health, really anything,” she said. “Only a year after I came, they moved to the River Market, and I helped work on setting up the new location.”

During those years at the Museum of Discovery, LaFollette held a number of jobs. From part time, she joined the full-time staff, she raised funds and helped create new programs, and finally, she oversaw the museum’s complete operations.

Her last big project was a major renovation of the entire museum.

LaFollette is also network director of the Arkansas Discovery Network, a system of six museums in Arkansas that is funded by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. The system includes the Mid-America Science Museum. She is also board chairwoman of the Arkansas Coalition for Excellence, a statewide association of nonprofit organizations.

The six museums share a common approach in reaching out to young people.

“This is about communicating and providing opportunities to let people direct their own learning,” LaFollette said. “This is a hands-on place.”

That up-close approach is how she obtained her interest in science at her grandparents’ farm.

“I spent a lot of summers there,” she said. “It was a subsistence farm, meaning they grew most of their own food. They had corn and peas and their own chickens.”

Helping around the farm, LaFollette said, awakened her to how life works. Once, she said, a fried chicken dinner became a science lesson.

“My grandfather took one of his chickens, and he brought it to my grandmother in the kitchen,” she said. “We took the feathers off, and as she cut it up, I learned about anatomy.”

At the farm, LaFollette learned about how nature worked through science. LaFollette’s interest was encouraged by one of her teachers.

“I had a great ninth-grade science teacher who affirmed my respect for nature and love of science,” she said.

In college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, LaFollette majored in secondary education and biology and general science.

“I taught science at my old high school in St. Joseph,” LaFollette said. “That gave me a great respect for teachers that I have always carried.”

But her life decisions took LaFollette away from the classroom after only a year, and she was soon a stay-at-home mom.

During those years, she lived in St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; then Little Rock.

“I loved Arkansas,” she said. “The whole state is beautiful, and we like to explore. We hiked a lot and explored the lakes.”

After a few years, LaFollette got a chance to make a change.

“When my youngest son went into kindergarten, I decided to get back to work,” LaFollette said. “Soon I was sitting behind a desk, and I didn’t want to do that for anything, so I decided I wanted to go back to teaching science, and I started at the Museum of Discovery.”

Just as it was in Little Rock, LaFollette faces some major challenges ahead in Hot Springs.

The Mid-America Science Museum, which is owned by the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, is in line to receive a $7.8 million capital grant from the Reynolds Foundation if the museum raises 20 percent of that amount as matching local funds.

The ad commission voted in October to extend its financial commitment to the Mid-America Science Museum through 2017, including $520,000 over five years to put the museum’s capital campaign “over the top,” as far as the $1.58 million in matching funds.

“We are just a little bit away from reaching that goal,” LaFollette said, holding her fingers less than an inch apart to show how close the museum is to raising the required funds.

The funds would provide a renovation of almost the entire interior of the existing museum and a proposed Science Skywalk, a 4,000-square-foot elevated platform that would connect with the building’s second floor and run into the forest canopy of the woods behind the museum.

“That will be something very unique, and taking the project through the construction phase will be real exciting,” LaFollette said. “I get to make the vision a reality.”

The Skywalk will be used to bring the plants and wildlife in the trees closer to visitors, allowing them to learn more about the diversity of life in the treetops.

The renovation and expansion project should make the museum a state-of-the-art facility well into the 21st century, LaFollette said, but she said some of the exhibits that have been the most popular for generations will remain.

“I can tell you the Teslar Coil and the Van der Graff, the glass ball with the lighting bolts that follow your hands, will remain, and some exciting new things will be coming,” she said.

She said the museum is expected to make an announcement in April regarding upcoming attractions.

“That is when the real planning begins,” LaFollette said.

“Diane LaFollette is the absolute right person to lead the Mid-America Science Museum as our new executive director,” Museum Board Chairman Lance Garner said the day her hiring was announced. “She is intimately acquainted with the processes of dealing with the grant money and the processes of going through the construction phases under the grant.”

LaFollette said she has been especially impressed with the staff and volunteers at her new museum home.

“They all have been doing their jobs for a while, so that gives me the time to get to know the community and raise friends and funds,” she said.

“I’ve always loved Hot Springs, and while I only moved here last Tuesday, I’ve met all my neighbors.”

As she settles into her office that looks out on the museum and its wooded setting, she said she looks forward to carrying on the tradition of getting the state’s youngsters interested in science.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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