Paleontologist David Moscato and special-program administrator Frank DiGiovanni are among...

Paleontologist David Moscato and special-program administrator Frank DiGiovanni are among staff at the Center for Science, Teaching and Learning in Rockville Centre. Credit: Steve Pfost

The mission of the Center for Science, Teaching and Learning in Rockville Centre is straightforward: “To encourage science learning and literacy.”

To that end, the center employs both scientists and teachers who work with school groups, families and others to show them how a knowledge of science leads to better stewardship of our natural resources.

For example, if more residents understood how using chemicals affects Long Island’s water supply, they would think twice about applying them to their lawn, said Ray Ann Havasy, the center’s director. “We wouldn’t fertilize our lawns so much if we knew that fertilizer seeps into our aquifers,” she said.

But as the center’s mission morphed from helping teachers understand science to educating the general public, it faced a critical personnel shortage that required it to throw out its playbook on recruiting, said Havasy, who co-founded the center with just one teacher and one scientist in 2000.

“You have to read the market, and we began to see that the general public wanted more information about science,” said Havasy, who has degrees in zoology, biology and education.

So the center began developing more programs for families. (And it also became a sanctuary for disabled or abandoned animals. On a recent warm morning, a proud peacock roamed the grounds while Buddy, a parrot with rainbow plumage, perched on an employee’s shoulder.)

That meant it needed more staff to teach. So the search was on for scientists.

“Our biggest challenge was finding scientists who could teach,” Havasy said. “That didn’t exist, at least not to the extent that we needed.”

Meanwhile, staff not only worked at the center’s summer camps in the Tanglewood Preserve, where the center is located, but was asked to provide services at two outside camps.

To temporarily deal with the shortage of employees with a dual background, the center decided to experiment by pairing teachers with scientists.

“So we had to quickly reconfigure who made up the staff, and that really gave us the idea of hiring scientists and hiring teachers to have them cross-pollinate,” she said.

The teachers, she said, would give the scientists tips on classroom management and how to question kids in a way that would stimulate their interest. And the scientists would help the teachers to understand “the concepts behind a lot of the science we do here,” she said.

“You see them teaching each other, and it’s fabulous,” Havasy said. “It so strengthens the programs here.”

Robert Valli, dean of the college of management at LIU Post in Greenvale, lauded the center’s flexible approach to its staffing shortage. “A visionary executive has to have a broad perspective of problem-solving,” he said.

Valli also said the interdisciplinary approach to teaching that resulted is becoming more popular in academia. “It’s a very effective way to teach,” he said.

Frank DiGiovanni, 35, a former elementary school teacher, joined the staff in September. He said he always loved science, and the center allows him to indulge his love of both disciplines. He is also the center’s special-program administrator and is paired with paleontologist and program coordinator David Moscato for classes.

“I am able to take very scientific terms and relevant vocabulary and break it down into more easily digestible forms for young students,” DiGiovanni said.

Today the science center has 10 full-time employees, including a chemist and a biologist, and employs up to an additional 14 part-timers during summer camp season.

Its offerings also include on-site programs for students during the school year, a nursery school, an animal exhibit and its October Spooky Fest, which attracts as many as 18,000 people, Havasy said.

What was once a problem, staff shortage, in the end helped create a spirit of camaraderie in the classroom, Havasy said.

“It created a whole collaborative nature here that we really love,” she said.

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