Since its founding in 2015 by Ping and Dr. Fritz Faulhaber, the couple’s ambition to make the study of science fun and less intimidating for local students has surpassed their dreams. (Fritz Faulhaber, an engineer and entrepreneur who led a multinational micro-motor manufacturing company based in Germany, passed away in 2017, but Ping continues to be an integral part of the center.)
“Students should learn science through doing—you have to experience it,” says Ping Faulhauber. “My husband always said you can’t learn to ride a bicycle by reading about it, you have to get on it and ride.”
With a popular summer camp and STEM Saturday morning programs in everything from rocketry to robotics, the science center is chockablock with 3D printers, mills for fine metal work and other gee-whiz machines. These STEM Saturday programs—like a new music science program that will allow kids to explore sound waves and use laser cutters to make their own musical instruments—are led by high school students who themselves are thinking about pursuing STEM careers.
Adults can use the Fab Lab, too, says science center spokeswoman Jenn Sams. Through a business membership, one person builds parts for violins there; another uses the machines to create intricately carved wooden furniture. A team from a Sarasota-based national company used the Fab Lab to build prototypes for an unnamed project.
The Suncoast Science Center operates independently of the school system, but the district allows it to use a building adjacent to the Suncoast Polytechnical High School in exchange for the lending library of science kits the center sends for free to schools across the county. These kits are full of materials for a wide range of experiments. One kit for younger students contains Oreos that students nibble on to demonstrate the phases of the moon, for example; an electrophoresis kit allows high schoolers to extract and study DNA from strawberries.
Despite the shortened 2019/2020 school year, the number of science kits lent to schools increased by 71 percent, impacting more than 16,000 students, says Sams. “Teachers tell us it makes a considerable difference in how the students absorb the material when they use the kits,” she says.
And last summer, through the center’s SCIP initiative (Student Community Innovation Program), high schoolers worked with professional mentors from the tech community to develop a website—COVIDucation.net—that elementary school teachers use to teach students about the dangers of Covid-19 and how to protect themselves.
“Students have so much pressure in school. Here, they can explore and fail and learn from their failures,” says Sams. “It’s a safe space where they can do what they love.”