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She’s helping Discovery Place attract more adults while boosting kids’ interest too

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Charlotte Arts Guide 2019-20

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Discovery Place is aiming in new directions: Upward to a more mature demographic and southward to a Caribbean experience.

“We’re all Cuba for the fall,” said Tifferney White, introducing the exhibition opening Nov. 9, featuring the culture, critters and ecology of the island nation 90 miles off the Florida Keys.

It’s an experiment to confront a conundrum faced by Discovery Place. While it is wildly successful as a family venue — with nearly 750,000 visitors annually, it is Charlotte’s No. 1 museum and the fourth-largest attraction in North Carolina — it still retains an image as a setting for children.

For years, Discovery Place has tried to broaden its appeal to other age groups through such programs as “Science on the Rocks,” an after-work cocktail and networking event aimed at grown-ups.

But with an IMAX movie, Cuban-themed food and drink, gatherings with Charlotte’s Cuban community and a wide-ranging series of exhibits this fall, Discovery Place hopes to build a reputation as a science museum for all ages.

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A Discovery Place exhibit on Cuba is opening Nov. 9 that will include an IMAX movie, Cuban-themed food and drink, gatherings with Charlotte’s Cuban community and a wide-ranging series of exhibits, such as this classic car. Courtesy of Discovery Place

“Adults want to have an authentic experience. We want to make people feel transported so when they leave they feel like they’ve just visited Cuba,” said White, chief learning officer of Discovery Place since 2017.

Drawn to teaching

A native of Newark, N.J., and a restless dynamo whose work touches all four of Discovery Place’s museums, White is in her second career there. She started as a newly-minted college grad doing science shows for kids in distressed neighborhoods.

Now, she charts the vast educational mission for Discovery Place, its outreach programs, staff training and teacher development center and acts as a fierce advocate for recruiting non-traditional students in the curriculums of STEM: science, technology, engineering and math.

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Tifferney White has been chief learning officer at Discovery Place since 2017, focusing on education, outreach, staff training and teacher development. Courtesy of Discovery Place

Her parents, both from South Carolina and sticklers for education, worked in blue-collar manufacturing in New Jersey. As a child, White spent a lot of time in the South and returned for college.

She entered Johnson C. Smith University in 1989 as a first-generation college student with a career path already in mind: She wanted to become a psychiatrist.

Psychology was her natural major, but she figured she’d need a background in biology to get into medical school, so she double-majored.

She had planned to take a year off before applying to medical schools. Her senior year, she heard about an outreach opening at Discovery Place. Derrick Tabor, in whose lab she worked in at JCSU, suggested she apply to get practice at interviewing.

It turned out she didn’t need the practice. She landed the job and started at Discovery Place a week after graduation.

An urban science missionary

Discovery Place sent her into underserved areas, the largely-black housing-project neighborhoods of Charlotte to spark an interest in children there to pursue science careers.

She discovered a gift for sharing complicated topics in simple ways. Kids were excited, she found, by the science she brought — especially snakes. She suppressed her ugh-factor with the serpents and made them regular performers after noticing how the wriggling creatures riveted her audiences.

“You never know when there’s a future zookeeper out there,” she said.

White developed presentations in everything from bird calls to physics, and the more she connected with young minds, the more she liked it.

“I knew this was different,” White said “It was something pulling me toward this work.”

Before long, she gave up on being a doctor and settled on a career as an educator.

Fresh challenge

White was looking for new growth opportunities 13 years later when she was recruited by the sagging Discovery Children’s Museum in Las Vegas. It was in a downward spiral with broken exhibits, declining attendance and needing TLC.

As director of programs and exhibitions, White launched community outreach programs as she’d done in Charlotte and reinvigorated the visitor experience with new shows, exhibitions and staff training. “I got to guide people young in their careers to develop a passion for teaching,” she said.

She was promoted to deputy director and helped design the Las Vegas museum’s replacement. It was a $50 million project that doubled its footprint and restored its profile when it reopened in 2013.

White had risen to chief executive officer and finished an MBA at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas when she was lured back to Charlotte in 2017 to the newly created position of chief learning officer at Discovery Place.

This put her in charge of education, exhibitions and visitor experiences at all four Discovery Place museums — Science, the best-known branch on North Tryon Street; Nature, near Freedom Park and home to the planetarium and many animals; and the two Discovery Kids! outlets in Huntersville and Rockingham.

When White was recruited from Las Vegas, Charlotte was starting to react to the Opportunity Task Force report showing the city lagging its peers, and that was an attraction for her because her career was rooted in reaching underserved populations.

Rebuilding the Las Vegas museum will serve her well in a major project next year: Discovery Place Nature will shut down in late 2020 for about two years, and the 70-year-old museum will be replaced with a modern one more than twice its size.

Inside and out, it will be rebuilt to serve new generations across its 13-acre campus with a new emphasis on nature walks. White’s main focus will be with the exhibition design team.

Advocate for STEM

White said she is passionate about developing STEM skills in students.

“It’s in everything we do,” she said. “There’s no way we can make informed decisions without a base knowledge of science and nature concepts. Not everyone is going to be a scientist, but we all need to be science literate. It’s interwoven in every part of our lives.”

A key challenge is to encourage more young women to study the sciences, she said. Traditionally, it largely has been a white-male career path, and science education has been geared toward males.

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Discovery Place Chief Learning Officer Tifferney White said she is passionate about developing STEM skills in students. Courtesy of Discovery Place

It has been demonstrated, White said, that girls tend to learn differently than boys and respond more to classes that stress real-world impact and outcomes promoting well-being. At Discovery Place, a program called Girls In STEM serves hundreds of elementary and middle school girls in Saturday workshops.

“We want to capture them before middle school, because that’s where they start to opt out,” she said.

Even the classrooms are decorated differently — with portraits of leading female scientists of different ethnic groups as role models, for example, rather than pictures of Thomas Edison.

“You can’t be it if you can’t see it,” said White, who was just such a role model to black children when she did Discovery Place outreach early in her career.

“They saw an African-American woman with a science degree,” she said. “We want to place people in their path that they can see themselves as.”

New approaches on teaching

Long involved with schools across both Carolinas, Discovery Place is also looking at new ways to interact with districts it serves.

It is moving to better match offerings to schools’ curriculum goals. It is striving to broaden its training of teachers, too, to focus more on STEM subjects.

“Workforce development is a very real priority for us, both in what we do to provide high-quality STEM learning experiences for youth during out-of-school time, as well as our efforts to collaborate with schools and educators to give them the resources and training they need to implement interactive and inquiry-based experiences in classrooms,” said Catherine Wilson Horne, Discovery Place CEO and president since 2014.

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Catherine Wilson Horne, president and CEO of Discovery Place, said she's committed to "creating a science-engaged public." JEFF WILLHELM jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

“STEM is the answer to shaping our community’s future, and Discovery Place is committed to creating a science-engaged public that is prepared for the jobs of the future,” Horne said.

A study by Charlotte Works, a non-profit career-development board, estimates that there will be 90,000 jobs in Charlotte related to STEM subjects by 2028.

“To make those numbers, we need to get more young people in the pipeline,” White said. “There are even more and more companies with a STEM focus moving in.”

Obvious cool/Hidden cool

We asked artists and arts administrators interviewed for the Fall Arts preview to talk about their favorite piece of Obvious Cool art in Charlotte and their favorite Hidden Cool art.

Obvious Cool art: “I am in and out of the airport a lot so, for me, the bronze Queen Charlotte statue is probably my favorite,” Tifferney White said. “When you think of what it means, there’s such a sense of arrival that she shows. It feels like she is standing there welcoming you. She is a strong presence, and she lets you know you have arrived in this amazing city. It’s such a great greeting.”

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The Queen Charlotte statue at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Observer file photo

Hidden Cool art: “ ‘Mother of Invention,’ for sure,” White said. “This is the mural that was painted on the side of Discovery Place Science as a part of Charlotte SHOUT. The piece by Rosalia Torres-Weiner of Red Calaca Studio celebrates creativity and innovation through art, technology, science and play. It features a painted woman who sees the world with one natural eye and one robotic eye. She is made up of iconography from many of the disciplines featured inside our museums, and she embodies independence, ingenuity, determination, collaboration, compassion and resiliency.”

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“Mother of Invention,” a mural by Rosalia Torres-Weiner of Red Calaca Studio that was painted on the side of Discovery Place Science as a part of Charlotte SHOUT, is Tifferney White’s favorite piece of hidden cool art. Alex Cason

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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