Innovation at Impression 5

Between the Riverwalk Theater and Michigan Museum of Surveying on Museum Drive in downtown Lansing, is a place where innovation and creativity meet: the Impression 5 Science Center.

Once you turn into the parking lot, it’s hard to miss – the building itself is bright blue. And by the décor alone, it’s clear the kids rule at Impression 5. However, it takes a group of dedicated individuals with a few more years under their belts to bring over 100,000 visitors a year from across Michigan to Lansing’s own science center.
The brainchild of Marilynne Eichinger, Impression 5 Science Center was founded in 1972 with the aim to help children experience science using all five senses. Now, the man in charge is Haslett native and self-proclaimed outdoorsman, Erik Larson.
Larson has been a part of the Impression 5 team for over 20 years. Joining the Impression 5 team at age 14 as a volunteer, he worked his way up the ranks and in 2005, became the executive director. Graduating with a degree in Biology from Olivet College, Larson has always loved science. It’s the understanding of how things work and the relationships between things in our world. I always loved the factual and inquiry based parts of science. Why and how – that’s what attracted me initially,” says Larson.
Educating the Kiddiwinks

But how does Impression 5 keep up with each new generation of kids and new scientific discoveries? That job falls on Micaela Balzer, education director at Impression 5. Balzer, 34, was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and moved to Lansing when she was just eight years old. It was her mother who pushed a 15-year-old Balzer to volunteer at Impression 5 in her spare time.
After graduating from Michigan State University, Balzer found herself returning to Impression 5. While she admits that as a math major, science was “not her forte,” she found herself drawn in by the “big unknown” aspect of science. Balzer also believes that being involved with Impression 5 has taught her some important life lessons. “Question, guess, take risks… all of these things apply to real life,” she reflects. “Ninety percent of the time, we’re afraid of the unknown. Working here teaches you that it’s okay to not have all the answers […] take risks to learn and challenge yourself.”
When asked to pinpoint her favorite aspect of being a part of the Impression 5 team, Balzer does not hesitate. “The people, both visitors and workers. Children are so amazing, I feel privileged to be a part of their environment.” she says. And about her coworkers, “They are unique individuals and you can’t help but be amazed by them.”
That group also includes the communications manager at Impression 5, Katie Wittenauer. At age 28, Wittenauer is one of the most recent additions to the Impression 5 staff. Born in Bozeman, Montana, Wittenauer attended college in Wisconsin, did Teach For America in Louisiana and finally ended up in Lansing to study professional writing in grad school.
A Lasting Impression

“I stayed in Lansing because of Impression 5,” says Wittenauer. “I stayed because of the people who are involved in the science center and the powerful interactions we create. It made me want to stay and be a part of the community.”
But Wittenauer isn’t the only Impression 5 staff member that had to take a few turns on their way to Impression 5. Programs coordinator and secret interior design enthusiast Melissa Ballard, 25, graduated from the University of Michigan after studying engineering. She stumbled upon her love for museums while on a study abroad trip. Once a summer camp counselor, she’s been a part of the team for three years and finds science to be similar to engineering.
“You get to work in teams, doing what you have to do to figure it out,” says Ballard. At Impression 5, she gets to brainstorm ideas for activities and programs, teaches long term programs and trains other staff. “I love how creative and flexible the job is, while the work remains very serious and important,” she adds.

Building Scientific Understanding

Impression 5 keeps about 10-15 permanent exhibits and one traveling exhibit on their main floor at a time. About 90% of these exhibits are built in the basement of the museum, a sort of quasi-museum in itself, full of the remains of exhibits that have come and gone. That is also where you’re likely to find Cyrus Miller, director of exhibits. Miller, leader of the creative force that builds the science center’s exhibits from the ground up, has been a part of the Impression 5 team since 1984 and remains excited about the future.
“I’m excited for a lot of new changes,” says Miller, “There are always big and exciting new things happening at Impression 5.”
One of the recent changes at Impression 5 has been the addition of the First Impression Room, which is open to children from birth to age five. Jen Currier, 23, is the young child programs coordinator and deals specifically with the First Impression Room. The DePaul University grad believes that science chose her. “I knew I wanted to teach,” Currier said, “But this is an opportunity that I ended up really liking.”
Working with the kids is her favorite part of the job. “We generate such an interest and love for science, which is very important,” says Currier. In addition to their core creative/educational team and administrative staff, Impression 5 relies on a large group of guest experienced team members and volunteers.

Larson also adds that the science center owes its success to the many supporters in the community. “It would be a crime to leave anyone out,” says Larson, “… from the funders to college students who come here on dates and even newlyweds who have hosted their wedding receptions at Impression 5.”
“It’s the ideal way to spend your day,” says Whittenaur. “Everyone here has a big impact. I love being a part of this team.”

Megan Polom is a freelance writer for Capital Gains.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
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