Behind the Scenes: Erik Larson

Erik Larson
Executive Director of Lansing’s Impression 5 Science Center

Erik Larson, 41, is executive director of Lansing’s Impression 5 Science Center, which attracts more than 140,000 visitors each year. Larson joined the museum staff in 1997 and became director in 2005.   He was in the initial 2007 class of 10 Over the Next Ten winners.

Can you give us a sense of Impression 5’s unique role in the greater Lansing community?

It’s the reason it was started in the late ’70s — to get kids to explore science and art using all five senses. I would still say that is our mission in 2016. But the tactics used to keep people connected to science and art are different today.

You’ve been here for 20 years. What’s different?

I think there’s a number of variables. People have changed the way that they learn and definitely the motivations that they have for learning have changed. Impression 5 is an informal learning environment. Our measurables, if you will, are a little more open ended than standardized tests. What we are really trying to create here is a change in science behavior for those individuals who engage with Impression 5. It’s different from memorizing content or even being able to regurgitate that content.  In the ‘70s, when Impression 5 opened, it was enough to give a child the opportunity to touch things. At the time it was so different from anything they had ever seen. All of a sudden, museums like ours came out from behind the glass and created these activities that allowed people to engage in what they were learning about.

Are you saying that Impression 5 encourages patrons to be active rather than passive?

We have to create a meaningful experience that motivates people to take the risks to learn. It’s different from me sitting down with you, creating an activity which you do once or twice and the outcome will be known. What we are trying to do is create an environment in which you are comfortable with the activity or activities, where you are surrounded by people that you trust and that you will take the risks necessary to learn. What it means, is that you don’t have to have all of the answers, nor do the people sitting right next to you. Collectively, you can figure things out.

Sometimes I think that becomes a difficult hurdle for people to traverse. Its plagued science centers for quite some time. When you talk to our visitors, one of their biggest fears is that [their] child is going to ask [them] a question that [they] can’t answer.

How do you deal with that?

What we are trying to do here is make sure that the environment we present for families here at the science center makes it OK for that to happen. The best example of that is how we have recently shifted away from building science exhibits in the traditional manner. We would take some scientific content with six or eight table top activities together. You would do that and all of a sudden know how to do a parallel circuit. Now what we are doing, is creating environments where we hope that kids and their parents will actually sit down in a space and spend a great deal of time there, just continually experimenting. It means trying this and asking questions, maybe failing and doing it again. What that does, in our opinion anyway, is allow the most dynamic of learning groups, which is the family group, to be successful.

It seems that a center like this is really selling a sense of wonder: Wonder like “isn’t that amazing” or “I wonder how that works.”

People refer to that sort of thing as the hook. What’s going to get them interested in a thing? Our racing car exhibit out there is really about the exploration of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. We have used racing to be the hook. It’s similar to our exhibits upstairs about throwing things with catapults, or canons or bottle rockets. It’s about exploring kinetic energy using things kids like to do. Yes, it’s absolutely creating the sense of wonder.

How would you characterize the growth and development of Impression 5?

It’s been transformational. The last 10 to 15 years have been game-changing. I don’t think the organization has gone through such upheaval and reinvention since the day it was created. I think that a lot it has come about by necessity. The science center that I sit in today is one hundred percent different from the science center you or I would have visited 10 years ago. Ninety percent of our exhibits are brand new. The way people get in and out of the building has totally changed. And our education programs are completely different. 

You’ve been with the center now for 20 years and you are pretty closely identified with it. People say Eric Larson, Impression 5. Impression 5, Erik Larson. Is that good or bad?

I think it’s great. I mean, this is my life’s work and I’m not the only one who has been here for 20 years.   I get a lot of the credit and a lot of the notoriety because there has to be an out-front person as the voice of Impression 5. I think it’s a positive. I hope to be here for a very long time. We still have a lot to achieve here. This job has never been and never will be a stepping stone for me to go somewhere larger or to a different market.

When you talk about goals, attendance is an important measure. How is it going this year?

Last year, at the end of our fiscal period, which [was] September 30, we reported 143,000 visitors.   This year, at the end of August, there were just over 140,000. We are definitely going to eclipse that 143,000 and we will take a big step towards our goal of 155,000 visitors. 

You belong to lots of civic and charitable groups. How important are relationships, particularly in the non-profit arena?

They are monumentally important. A good example is the success the Impression 5 is having right now with fundraising, that has brought numerous large contributions to help us do facility plans and rebuild the exhibits. None of that happens without the decade-long relationship development that happen before that. In order for me to be able to sit down with you as a prospective donor and ask you for $100,000, you have to trust me. You have to know that what I’m asking for is what we need and that if you give it to me, I am going to do what I said I was going to do. That doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, in a town like Lansing, which is a small town, everybody knows one another and there are not the same deep pockets that you have in other towns. This town does a phenomenal job at coming together to make things happen.

You were in the first class of 10 over the Next Ten Award Winners. Was it a significant milestone in your career?

It was huge.  I had no idea that I could win. My board and a number of members of my team did a lot to write the nomination package and letters of support. Still, I was totally surprised to receive the award and I remember feeling overwhelmed because it’s such a monumental call to action. You realize, “Wow. People expect a lot from me.”  I knew what I was doing was important, but to hear other people talk about you, it was like “Are you talking about me?”

 This conversation with Erik Larson has been edited for space and clarity.

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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