Bernie zubrowski



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When I worked for the Elementary Science Study, there were these high-powered people, some of them very aggressive. And there was a certain kind of atmosphere there. Very task-oriented, and very political. Any institution is political, but there were some real political problems there. And I don’t know, it had probably more men than women at the Elementary Science Study. When I went to the museum, there was a totally different management style, and a different atmosphere. And there’s probably less focus on content and more on the audience that you’re working with. Now that I’ve gone back to EDC, it’s sort of different. EDC is this vast kingdom with little dukedoms that hardly talk to each other. I mean, there are 400 people there, and I don’t know how many projects there are. And there are these different centers. Centers for Science Education, Centers for Community, Centers for Health, international programs, and we see each other once a year at the annual party. [Last year] I’ve been trying to work with one of the other centers. So there is that part. And then there is the Center for Science Education, and there are 20-some of us. There is the High School Curriculum Development Program, there’s Karen Worth and Early Childhood, and there’s two other people besides myself doing community development.
MIKE: [inaudible] Tell the whole story.

Well, it’s good now because I do have colleagues who are thinking about science curriculum, science education, and there’s issues come up all the time, that I didn’t have that at the museum. The first few years at the museum there was [Kaki Aldrich] and Marion, where we could talk about some issues regarding teaching science. Diane Willow worked with me a little bit. So I was basically the science person. And that was kind of hard sometimes. So I had to go to the Science Museum and other places to have some conversations around science education. I mean, there were some common pedagogical problems that I shared with other developers. But I was a bit isolated. And it is different at EDC. There are things that we can talk about that, I mean, I just can walk around the corner and talk to someone about some curriculum I’m working on or some activity I’m working on. Also, these other folks are connected into a real network across the country of science educators that, if I wanted to find out about someone, I could just go around the corner and talk to Karen [Worth] or someone else. And I couldn’t do that at the museum, or even to some extent within the science museum community. And that’s made a big difference in terms of getting to know some science education issues, as well as making contact with a lot of science education people across the country. So that’s been pretty good. But ironically, I was going to say – which probably shouldn’t go on tape – the person I’m working with I’m having a hard time work with. He worked at TERC, which is a similar place to EDC. And the first year or so, I thought things were going to go. We’ve been together six years now and it’s been hard. His office is next to me and we have a strained personal and professional relationship. Other people around are great, are fine. There’s a woman who was a middle school teacher. She and I get along great. We have good conversations about pedagogy and all of that.

MIKE: Talk about the business of the person in, like, Janet’s role as a broker between [B&P] and developers and how you experienced that or didn’t experience that.

Yeah, I saw that as a question. And I was thinking about that last few days. John and I had some differences, but in general, what I think most of the exhibits I didn’t have too much of a problem what he did. Some of the exhibits were basically building surfaces on which the activities could be put. Bubbles, tossing yo­ yos, Raceways to some degree. Like I say, the areas where we had some problems were Wheels and Salad Dressing Physics, because there were some real design issues there. So in general, I felt that that wasn’t too much of a problem. Janet was helpful in acting as a go-between. Another kind of issue I think, in later years, science tended to get de-emphasized and somewhat became peripheral to things that were happening at the museum, particularly in the last few years I was there. And I had problems with that. And in a way there was no one to go to. Except Pat. Pat was certainly an advocate for me, and played that role to some degree. But she had to play that role for everyone, and deal with the politics of, particularly when it came to finding funding for future projects. That’s where a lot of power picking and difficulty came in. How resources were going to be divvied up in terms of looking for future funding. And that’s even true at EDC. I mean, that’s a tricky thing, and one expects politics around it. But in terms of developing exhibits, I don’t think that was a problem. I’m not sure what else to say about that.

MIKE: I was just probing. Because I remember that there was the idea that Janet’s job had to be invented by somebody like Elaine saying, you know, “This is....” Especially when you got, you thrived in the matrix sort of form of having all of these different ways of expressing your work. For other people it was problematic, for example, for, I think, perhaps Joan Lester. She got to the point where I think the exhibit part of her job was less and less interesting to her, and therefore that piece of her funding – her funding, as you all knew, was divided up in little tiny pieces. And so I was bringing that question up of the – talk about politics, but how did work actually happen and how did you get things resolved and how did budget actually end up in where they were in terms of what you could do or not do or how things traveled. Even I think you could talk a little bit about publishing, too [inaudible]. Thinking about how that worked with Pat and publishers and getting a series going.
Well, I was kind of lucky in a way. I don’t know if you had something to do with this or not. But the first set of books was published through Little Brown. And before that happened, I was looking around for a way of getting some of my stuff in print. And Jim was looking into that to some degree. And [inaudible] board member or something like that that knew the editor at Little Brown, brought that person over. We had some meetings. And we did six books. But then they decided that they weren’t going to continue the series. And I was kind of worried about that. And I don’t know what happened. I was down in New York at some meeting. Maybe it was about something else. I met David Reuther from William Morrow. And I told him I was looking for a publisher for a book. And I think he had seen my other books he was interested in. And luckily he was interested, and that started our ten-year relationship. Well, I was lucky that William Morrow stayed with me for ten years. [In fact] after I left the museum, they got gobbled up by Prentiss Hall, and basically took out of circulation our – what’s the word, I forgot. Not too long after I left the museum, I kind of think three years, they discontinued my books. So my time would have run out with them at that point. But I was very lucky to have the opportunity to get those books published. You know, I got an award last year for AAAS for the books. And from NSTA, too, Faraday Award. And in terms of funding, as you know, initially it was hard getting money from NSF. We tried several times. And then what happened, we wrote a proposal, Elaine and Anne [Tribble], I think. It got through the panels, the panels approved it, and then Reagan came along and there was no money. And I can remember that. Then it was a number of years before I guess Wang did some heavy politicking and lobbying and we got money to start to do exhibits. You know, those were the eight traveling exhibits. Because some of the money for Tools was internal money, I think. Raceways also, or maybe some special funding. But then there were eight exhibits that were funded by NSF. I should say a little more about that. You know, a number of those exhibits were only around the museum for six months, and then they went on the road. And some of them were never brought back. I never understood that. They were good exhibits. They ought to be, they should have been there for two or three years, given the investment of time and all that. Anyway. Well, there were some conversations recently about bringing some of those back, but I don’t think that’s gone anywhere. But these were good exhibits, not only in my opinion, but some museum people in the museum world thought they were good exhibits. And it’s a shame that they’re not out there. I don’t know, is Wave still in storage? I was going to ask John. It had been in storage for, like, eight years. And they didn’t do anything with it. That was a great exhibit. So that’s kind of a disappointment. Because I think they’re pretty good exhibits. Back to funding and [NSF]. The last ten years I was at the museum, I think a good bit of my salary came from NSF. It was the exhibits, curriculum, and then the community education. In fact, the last three or four years I was there, I think almost all my salary came from NSF. Which is a tricky situation, because it’s all soft money. And that’s my problem at EDC. That’s the other thing that I should talk about the difference between the museum and EDC. I mean, as you know, we run totally on soft money. Maybe it’s 50% or 60% came from earned income, which gave you come kind of cushion. The problem at EDC it’s totally soft money. And unless you write a three-year or five-year grant, you’re always writing proposals. In fact, a number of years ago, this was about six or seven, I had two proposals in. They got turned down. I had to leave EDC. I took a huge cut in salary. Luckily I ended up at Mass [PEP] for September to June. We resubmitted one of them, they got funded. They picked me up on another proposal. And like at the museum, I work on several different projects, and that’s how I get paid. And the trick is, you don’t want all the projects to run out at once. And that’s once of the tradeoffs. I mean, you kind of get to define your projects, but half the time you’re writing proposals. Not half the time, but every other year I’m in the midst. Pat Campbell and I just found out about a project that the panel – the panels are really getting to be hard now. I’ve gotten turned down on three of them now. So much for getting an award from NSTA. It doesn’t make any difference with these panels. So in terms of funding and the museum and EDC and funding when I was there, there was this thing that at least if you didn’t get funded you still had like half a job or something like that. But at EDC that doesn’t work out. But once we got funded on the exhibit thing, and I guess partly my [inaudible] reputation so that folks in Washington knew me, that always helps in terms of getting funding, particularly from the project officer. But I’ve been [living] on NSF money for the last, I don’t know, 15 years or so. But it’s running out. I don’t know after this one project that I’m involved with right now, it’s only 30%. I’m about to give up, particularly after we got comments from the program officer just the other day on the panel that they didn’t understand our project. And it’s getting much more difficult to get funding from NSF. Very competitive. And you don’t know who’s going to be on the panel. And the panel often now doesn’t seem to understand the damn projects, because they’re picking people – they made this ruling two years ago that, like, if you have a proposal in, you can’t be on any of the panels. Which means that all the major museums don’t have people there, and all the major museums kind of know what’s going on in the world. And they’re bringing in people who aren’t quite familiar with the field. Academics who don’t quite understand even about science curriculum. And they make these off-the-wall comments about your proposal where you know either they didn’t read the damn proposal or they don’t understand the damn project. You know? It’s very discouraging. And of course Bush’s administration has done all sorts of things at NSF that are not too healthy. Anyway, that’s beside the point.

MIKE: Have you ever tried to get, with your art work, ever tried to get an NEA proposal?
I don’t know about that. The art world is pretty fussy. And I think you have to have a long track record if you go to NEA, doing art. And I don’t have that. Designing exhibits I don’t think would count with them. I mean, I did do that Artist in Residence at the Exploratorium at 15 years or so ago, and my piece was up for two years. But when I was out there recently, I found out it was controversial. It was kind of interesting. Some staff people at the Exploratorium, some of which are artists and then there are scientists and I don’t know which was which, but some people thought that my piece was not art, and some people didn’t think it was science. And I say, well, maybe, maybe that’s good. But the result is they took it out. Even though a number of people when I was out there in July said they really loved the piece.
MIKE: This is the mist one?

No, not Mist. This was a cloth waving in water. Anyway.


DOTTIE: [Tell us about] your process at home. You said you were going to start doing a mist thing? From the moment that you decided, “Hey, mist would be a cool thing to mess around with,” then what’s the next step after that moment?

Well, it’s kind of like the way I’ve developed the activities. There’s some things I see out in the world and it could be in a natural world, or even a manmade world that I find interesting. Let me give you an example of that. I’m trying to think of something. Well, one example from some time ago, you drive around and you see construction sites. Sometimes you see cloth hung around the building. And the way the cloth is [waving] on the building, I say, “That’s kind of interesting, I want to play around with that.” So what I did is, I went to the hardware store and I got very thin dropcloth, 1 mil. And I taped two pieces together so I had a rectangular sheet that was about 20’ long by 18’ wide. And I put it on four flexible fiberglass rods over here, and I just let the wind blow it. And it’s really interesting to watch. Sometimes if there’s a gentle breeze, it sort of just goes up and down. Sometimes it waves a little bit. And when it’s really windy, it jumps all over the place. And with that one, I hardly made any changes. I found, though, that the 1 mil dropcloth tears easily. And this summer I got parachute cloth, which is lightweight flexible, because that’s what I needed and it doesn’t tear. It’s really strong. And that’s going pretty good. But sometimes I’ll see something, and I’ll say “That’s an interesting effect,” and I’ll go home and start playing around with it. And I get an idea for a sculpture, and I try to do it and it doesn’t work. But in the process of playing around with it, I find there’s some other thing going on that I find interesting. And I play with that and something happens. Some of my best sculptures are ones where I didn’t start out to do it, but I discovered it along the way. Like one time I was playing around with stainless steel wire circles. And I made one about this big, one about this big, and one about.... And I put it on a piece of tape and I made it wave back and forth and I said, ehhh, it just didn’t grab me. It wasn’t that interesting. And then for some reason I started putting a bunch of circles together. So now I have a piece that has stainless steel wire circles that are close to each other. They change in diameter every inch or so, so that like 25 of them. And I would suspend it from a tape. And I had that up at the museum a long time ago. You push it and it waves back and forth and it looks sort of neat. I have had that up at EDC and people like it. But that I didn’t start out to do. It came from something else. And a number of times I found that I just, from exploring and playing around with the materials. And that was true with the mist at the Exploratorium. I was playing around with that and didn’t know quite how to control it, and I tried different things. And oh, I said, “Oh, if it stays near the surface I get more control.” So you’ve got to play around with stuff. I like to tell the story I used to tell at workshops to teachers that I came across a long time ago. Edmund Carpenter, who was an anthropologist, wrote about some of his work with Eskimos. And he said one time he was watching an Eskimo carver. And the carver would start carving away with his piece of ivory or bone and he’d be humming away. And then somehow a seal emerged from the bone. And the idea was that he didn’t start out with seal, the seal came from his interaction between the bone and his own past experience and all that. And there’s one tradition in sculpture, Michelangelo, Brancusi and even some contemporary artists, talk about their work in the same way. They played around with stuff. And as they play around with stuff they get ideas, things happen. But I realized that that has embedded in a very interesting philosophy, not only in terms of materials but with people and whatever you’re working with. Don’t start necessarily with preconceptions. You don’t start with stereotypes about people. You try to have a dialogue with them and get to know them through the dialogue. When you work with students, you don’t try to impose concepts and all sorts of stereotypes on them. You set up situations where you can get to know them through the way they work with the materials and the way they talk about that and the way they talk with you. So in that one example is a whole philosophy of education. In fact, I’ve written a chapter in my book about that, that it’s a humanistic approach to education.

DOTTIE: How do you get a grant from NSF with that philosophy?
I never talked about [inaudible].
DOTTIE: It’s just that NSF requires, before you get the grant, you have to have conceived everything about it, and [inaudible].
MIKE: When I was on the panel, that wasn’t true, that there were a lot of people who were experienced in after school and museums who understood that you could do it in a much more organic way and it would emerge. For example, the grant was to also develop the idea, not to execute an idea that was already in place.
DOTTIE: I think that’s less so now.
MIKE: Yes, I’m sure of it.

Well, in the proposals that we sent off to NSF, we never told them that we had already done a great deal of work on these things, and basically we were getting funding to put the thing in the final stages on the exhibits. I mean, all the exhibits, when we were writing the proposal, I had an idea of what exhibits I wanted to do. Like, we were going to recycle Raceways and Bubbles and Tools and then I had ideas for other exhibits. But we didn’t tell them that we had spent 15 years before doing all of that. Basically, we were asking them to do some tryouts and fabricate it and send it out. Because no way could I have done eight exhibits in three years. And the same thing with the curriculum. The curriculum models in technology and science. Geez, that’s 20 years of work before. And the three years I was working on it was just trying it one more time and doing some field testing. But I had done a lot of work with kids before I had written that curriculum. It takes time, it really takes time to develop stuff. If you’re going to be creative, I mean, if it’s somewhat innovative. So these grants are kind of bogus, in a way. I mean, if a person goes in and thinks that they are going to start with a totally new idea and then do it in two years or whatever, that they’re either naïve or unrealistic.
MIKE: If you use your own childhood and your own education, did that inform how you think about after school programs, exhibits, any of that kind of stuff?
Well, when I was a kid growing up in Baltimore, that was in the ‘40s and ‘50s. And I came from a background, my parents didn’t have much money. So I did a lot of tinkering, you know, I took mechanical [inaudible] apart, went down the basement. And my father had a whole bunch of tools he inherited from somewhere and I played around with them. I remember going to library one time and getting a book out on how to build boats, and I made, like, ten different kinds of wooden boats with scrap wood. And I’d go around with some friends, we would collect fruit boxes made out of wood, break them apart, and we used those to build things. So I guess, in a way, I mean, I’m still doing that to some degree. And in fact I wish I had my books when I was growing up. So I suppose in a way that is a continuity there, and making do with what you have at hand. But I think it’s just part of my temperament to explore. I’m more a materials person than a.... You know, I’ve written books and all that, and people are surprised when I find writing really hard. But to me writing is hard. The kids’ books weren’t too hard, because a lot of it was sort of giving directions. But some of the other writing that I’ve done, like this one book I’ve worked on for 15 years, that has been hard. Words are much harder to come by than picking up something and playing around with it. And that’s been true ever since I was a kid. So there’s some continuity there. But when I was growing up in high school and college, I saw myself as a chemist. I didn’t see myself as an educator. And it was the Peace Corps experience, and somewhat by accident at the museum, that I ended up being a science educator. That was not my goal. Although I always liked kids and working with kids. Like, when I was in college my older sister got married and had kids and I would go over to her house and play with her kid and all that. And when I went to the Peace Corps and got involved over there, I liked working with the kids over there. And that was a great thing about the museum, I could work with kids, I could do design, I could do science stuff, I could do art. And it was a place where a lot of that came together. I like to pursue all those interests.

MIKE: Does it feel like that you’ve created a thread through all these various things that it has integrity, that it’s a part of you?
Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. Writing my little story. I mean, there is a continuity that goes probably from the time I was in the Peace Corps up ‘til now. Because I’ve worked from the same activities [inaudible] years. And because I was at the museum I could do that, and it’s been a game trying to figure out a way of how to continue to work with the same stuff despite the uncertainty of funding and uncertainty of my job situation. But there’s been a real continuity through all of it. I mean, I have been digging into various research and all for, like, 20 years or so, just to give me a sense of how other people think about some stuff related to science education. But I’ve always used these concrete activities and experiences to test those different theories and all that. But I think I may be unusual, I don’t know. I mean, I’m just one of these people that gets interested in something. And sometimes it’s been a problem. I can’t leave some stuff. You know? I keep working on it, even though it may not – like, some of the sculptures I do, like this Mist, I don’t know if it will ever be put out anywhere, but I just found it so interesting. And I’ve been interested in mist and air and water movement for 20 years. So there’s several different things I’ve come back to a number of times, and kind of relating it to art and to science education. So, yeah, that’s been a real continuity for [all these years].
MIKE: Would you have been happy to have been on the staff of the Exploratorium for a similar amount of time?

Well, that’s an interesting question. I know I don’t think I would have been happy at the Science Museum here. At the Exploratorium. Well, I don’t know if they would have let me. The zeitgeist there, or whatever you call it, taking the approach I took with exhibits. There were some pretty strong feelings. And even now, this thing of one example, one thing, rather than digging into something. But yeah, but the people that work with teachers, there’s real simpatico with what they do. And a bunch of the exhibit people, yeah, I think it might have worked out. And there would have been more people there that I could talk to about similar interests, for sure. Uh-huh. Yeah, every time I go out there, I want to move out there. Until I look at the housing prices.

MIKE: How about your relationship with Pat and her sponsorship of you of working with publishers? Was she deeply involved or not with your publications?
Well, she was involved with the exhibit stuff. That was the only.... The books? The books just happened. She was certainly a real supporter of my going to get funding for the curriculum stuff and for the after school stuff. And I think whatever workings that were going on, she was always an advocate and supporter for me. We always had a good working relationship. We got along pretty good. And I think she had, given her background, that she had for a long time worked with teachers – in fact, we worked together on the 636 programs – she had a really good under­standing of what I was about, particularly the pedagogy and all that. So it was great to have her around. And there was Dottie, too. Dottie was a strong supporter and we worked together on a whole bunch of things. So, yeah, I think we had a good.... Elaine was a different story. Elaine and I’s chemistry.... I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t exactly that we didn’t get along, but there wasn’t a good chemistry. And fortunately, Pat and I did have a good chemistry.
DOTTIE: I was just thinking of Pat, really, particular with [Thunder]. And I remember that it was difficult to get people to understand [the] science. [inaudible] Jeptha, who was, “Is this really science that we’re doing here, or is this...?” You know, but Pat really totally –
Yeah, she was really good about that, right, helping to –
DOTTIE: And she translated [inaudible].
Right. Because some people look at what I do and it’s too playful, too exploratory, the science isn’t explicit enough for them. And she could talk in a way about the work that related to more traditional stuff. Yeah.
[END OF VIDEOTAPE 2, END OF INTERVIEW]




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