Proposed Innovation Experience Center Capitalizes on Entrepreneurial Spirit of Children's Museum

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“Even as a nonprofit, we are an entrepreneurial startup. With so much conversation around building an entrepreneurial ecosystem…usually, it is only systemized for private business,” explained Heidi Mestad, Director of the Minnesota Children’s Museum of Rochester.

All great impact is built off the work of others, Mestad explained. She continues to build as she redesigned and reorganized the museum’s staffing, governance, and future direction over the past year and a half. The nonprofit’s team itself is full of risk takers, several of whom left impactful jobs to fulfill a larger vision and passion, such as Beth Sherden, the current Operations and Experience Manager.

In true fashion of a startup, Sherden said they are not afraid to “go ahead and try and then iterate” at the museum, learning and growing from failures and successes.

The nonprofit has remained small and agile, allowing it to innovate and experiment with its model and challenge the very concept of “museum,” helping the nonprofit to remain a relevant and viable business in Rochester.

The creativity and entrepreneurship exhibited at the museum is helping to spur a new trend in the industry, claiming a spot at the intersection of education and innovation, where children and adults can curate their own experience, foster lifelong learning, and play.

Mestad explained that the current Minnesota Children’s Museum of Rochester, at its location on North Broadway, was always understood to be a proof of concept, a pilot.

“So now, what’s next? What did we learn? What do we need to do a little differently? And what do we need to do to make sure it continues to be a relevant and sustainable business model as we go forward?” she asked.

To meet the needs of the evolving Rochester community, the nonprofit recently wrapped up a ten-month discovery period- where the team met with several focus groups and thought leaders and toured other children’s, science, and health museums- and recently unveiled renderings for a new, multi-generational experiential learning concept, temporarily called the Innovation Experience Center.

This ~30,000 square foot space will focus on three key impact areas- innovation, cultural exchange, and health and well-being- to provide experiences that reflect stories of regional creativity and ingenuity.

Exhibits, or “impact zones,” in the proposed museum would constantly change, but the story line would always explore the region’s rich innovation history and foster a sense of place, purpose, and learning through play, where community members and visitors leave saying, “Wow! I didn’t know that!”

The Innovation Experience Center is designed to present visitors with a problem, encouraging them to challenge themselves and work toward a solution.

“It’s an impactful intersection of research, education, and attraction center all in a fun way. But then other things can build off of it,” Mestad explained.

The entrance itself to the Innovation Experience Center could include something like a maze or a double-stranded DNA ladder that kids and adults would have to navigate through to access the space.

Inside the center at the exhibits, or “impact zones,” visitors again would be presented with some sort of problem to test and push the boundaries of their thinking and develop their “executive” skills. Mestad said patrons could be faced with an issue like drought and they need to grow corn. Or perhaps they must implement a solution based on IBM weather technology or utilize design thinking and determine the right tools to solve a problem related to the human genome. Perhaps the center would house an MRI machine that kids can sit in to alleviate tensions for an upcoming hospital visit. Or maybe there are hundreds and thousands of pathology slides that can be rearranged to create interactive, public art.

“You can be immersed in the place-based experience to learn about the people that do the creative and critical thinking and allow some sort of outcome around the story line,” Mestad explained.

She hopes the Innovation Experience Center will help visitors understand and learn more about our region’s creativity not just by reading about it, but by experiencing it.

The exit from the proposed museum, Mestad explained, would also be a carefully designed experience, allowing patrons to reflect on their time in the space and to internalize the information. She said this must be a calming time, perhaps involving something like lily pad projections that visitors would have to wade through. Or perhaps it could include bean bag pods that promote relationship – centered areas where kids and adults could rest and contemplate their experience in before leaving the space.

Mestad said a downtown location would maximize the impact of the Innovation Experience Center; however, the team is examining other options as well, based on interest of investors. She hopes to have selected a site by early next year.

This regional innovation focus of the experience, Mestad explained, can inspire a sense of place and pride in the community for both children and adults, helping them cultivate their own interests and appreciate and build upon the rich innovation in this region.

“We have a large workforce gap now, and increasingly growing in our future. The museum helps to close the experience gap that will attract and retain families in our region, while engaging and helping to develop families and future regional citizens,” Mestad explained. “Many of our community members aren’t even aware about their community. First and foremost, you’re building a sense of place and pride. You’re building connections and a knowledge base around your city, all through playful experiential learning.”

Non-traditional educational models, such as that proposed by the Innovation Experience Center, can not only instill a purpose of place, it may also help to attract and retain valuable human capital in the region.

“What will stunt our innovation and our pioneering is that we will not have enough people to think creatively or enough to be able to fulfill all the other roles in the community,” Mestad explained.