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How one man’s vision will benefit the future of North Dakota

Do you often wonder how GPS works? What does it really look like in space?  Can thunder hurt me? How does hydraulic fracturing work? What’s the difference between spring wheat and winter wheat? Why do I have blue eyes? Children and adults alike encounter things every day that fill us with questions about how the world works.

Bismarck State College (BSC) chemistry professor Frank Koch dedicated his life working to help students answer these questions. He believed that science was fundamental to understanding not only the world around us, but to understanding our place within it.  It was this passion for science coupled with his persistent personality that led to the birth of Gateway to Science in Bismarck,  in 1994. His vision was to create an interactive science center in North Dakota more than 20 years ago where kids of all ages can discover science through hands-on experiences.

Gateway to Science North Dakota

Frank Koch stands in the midst of exhibits at Gateway to Science–the place he worked tirelessly to create. Photo: Rob Koch.

“My dad always said that without chemistry, the world wouldn’t go ‘round,” said Rob Koch, reflecting on the legacy his father left behind. “His students always said he was inspiring. He always dedicated time after school to his students, and he attended a lot of conferences as a chemistry teacher. They often went to science museums where he saw students engaging and interacting with the exhibits. He’d bring back pictures, oodles and oodles of them. What I know now is that he was stockpiling photos, knowing he was going to use them later.”

Frank really decided he was going to do something for Bismarck when he visited the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, Florida. Frank observed some kids looking at exhibits, but not really engaging with them. Frank walked over to the kids, showing them how the exhibits worked and explaining them. It was the results of those impromptu lessons that pushed Frank to bring it all back to North Dakota. The kids were smiling and inspired to learn. He wanted to bring that experience to his home town.

“It wasn’t just his personal agenda,” Rob said. “He just wanted kids to learn. His biggest and most infectious smile showed at the moment when he recognized the kids he was teaching ‘got it.’ It doesn’t matter how many times it happened. He always got excited when he could see things click.” Now Frank’s own granddaughter has a great interest in science, just one of many young people in a long list of those influenced by Frank Koch and the legacy he left behind at Gateway to Science.

The Need for Enhanced Science and STEM Education

Because the world we live in is increasingly affected by technology, science, math and engineering it is critically important that our children understand not only the individual fields, but also how they interact with each other. This understanding must go far beyond paper and pencil, further even than end of year testing.  This learning and knowledge will enhance every part of their lives and ours, as youth grow into tech-savvy adults, interact with the natural world, design integrated systems such as roads and neighborhoods and influence new laws that are made.

Looking forward, this type of knowledge is also sure to enhance the number of career possibilities that the youth of today will be capable of handling. Though not everyone will choose to be a biomedical engineer or a nuclear physicist, many jobs today, and in the future will require a firm grasp on STEM education. Gateway to Science in Bismarck helps encourage the kind of education Frank believed “makes the world go ‘round.”

Benefits to North Dakota

Gateway to Science is a great benefit to North Dakota and the surrounding areas, as it provides a fun, exciting, interactive and educational opportunity for all who visit. The hands-on interactive exhibits are built for everyone to try out – from preschoolers to grandparents.

Dave Sprynczynatzyk was elected as the first president of the board of directors for Gateway for Science and continues to serve today as an Emeritus Board member. “We joked about how the museum was for ‘kids of all ages,’ because it’s really fun to watch a 5-year-old engaged with the exhibits, but it’s also fun to watch a 65-year-old working and learning things, maybe working with something he learned way back in school,” he said as he recalled the early days of the center.

Quite often, the multi-generational experience can help to enhance the learning that is acquired as families experience exhibits together. With each visit to the center, grown-ups and kids alike can visit favorite exhibits, but also discover what’s new in the prototype gallery. Here, visitors will find new exhibits in various stages of development as the center plans for expansion into a new facility.

Here are some of the exhibits in the prototype gallery:

The fact that the US Department of Education encourages hands-on learning as a way to ensure that more students are engaged and successful in the future, combined with the museum’s 90+ interactive exhibits makes Gateway to Science of great benefit to those living in and around North Dakota.

Extending the Vision

As a chemistry teacher with a background in STEM, Frank wanted to create a place for science that would draw individuals of all ages. More importantly, he wanted to ensure that those who visited the center would be able to have fun, use their hands (and brains), and interact not only with the displays, but also with each other – sometimes not even noticing that they were learning because they were having such a good time.

For 10 years, the center existed in the Gateway Mall, built and run with donations and fundraising efforts of about two dozen individuals and interested families. As the 10-year anniversary was approaching, the Board of Directors began to work with the Bismarck Park District in an effort to select a new location capable of housing Gateway to Science, along with a few arts organizations. It would become a destination not only for those who live near the center, but also the busloads of children that come to see, and participate in the entertaining learning activities.

Frank’s son Rob said that during all those years teaching at BSC and working at Gateway to Science, Frank’s vision stayed the same. He wanted to grow the center until it could become a stand-alone destination where it could continue to expand. Frank continued to research exhibits and work to fund a new building that North Dakota could become the destination he’d always envisioned.

The new state-of-the-art facility will house more exhibits and expanded educational outreach programming for students, teachers and the general public. Once again, this amazing center will rely on donations from individuals that understand the overwhelming need, as well as the great benefit that this type of hands-on education provides.

Former North Dakota First Lady and Honorary Capital Campaign Chairperson said, “Having a state-of-the-art science center of this caliber in Bismarck and in North Dakota will be a huge asset and will add so much to our quality of life here. The ‘hands-on’ approach to learning has been proven to increase creativity, logic development and reading readiness, and it is the hallmark of an exemplary science teacher.”

Unfortunately, museum founder Frank Koch passed away on June 10th of 2016. Though “North Dakota’s most inspirational chemistry teacher” will no longer play an active part in the center, infusing it with his wit, knowledge and sense of humor, his legacy and vision will be carried forward. Last February, the Gateway to Science Board of Directors voted to name the laboratory classroom in Frank’s honor, just one way they will continue to honor the memory of the center’s founding scientist. By donating to the Frank Koch Memorial Fund for Gateway to Science, you can also begin to play a role not only in helping Frank’s vision live on, but you can play a part in the future education of the youth (and adults) of today.

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