Building Sustainability, Inside and Out

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Lance Cutrer, Museum of Discovery and Science

The Museum of Discovery and Science (MODS) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has embarked on a journey to claim our position in the community as a leader in sustainability and resiliency. Our vision is to create a hub for learning, planning, and community discussion focused on tackling issues related to climate change. This comprehensive approach, built upon decades of environmental education and science-based learning, began at our founding in 1977 (when we were called the Discovery Center). In 1992, we opened our current location and took another step toward environmental education with the introduction of our EcoScapes exhibit. Still open today, an updated EcoScapes carries museum guests through the various ecosystems of South Florida to highlight the importance of a healthy natural environment.  Our next step, in 2011, allowed us to enter the world of green building when we opened a 25-million-dollar expansion called the EcoDiscovery Center. The center, which doubled our public space, was designed to meet LEED Silver designation under the U.S. Green Building Council LEED rating system.

In 2019, CEO Joe Cox and the board of trustees built upon this long history and solidified our commitment to sustainability with our 2020-2025 strategic plan. Along with early childhood learning, health and wellness education, and physical science education, the strategic plan now incorporates environmental sustainability as the museum’s fourth content pillar. The new pillar has led us to take numerous industry-first steps. In addition to hiring our first ever environmental sustainability manager, MODS has begun the design process for a new permanent exhibit focused on addressing climate issues. We have also implemented new internships designed to educate youth on resiliency issues, and taken steps toward lowering our own resource footprint. To fulfill our vision to become a community hub for resilience and sustainability, MODS is joining forces with dozens of local partners and experts to bring the community together and show that large-scale action can show real results when addressing climate change.

Why Focus on Sustainability and Resiliency?

Being more sustainable, focusing on more efficient building processes, and seeking green energy alternatives is not new. Many institutions have successfully undertaken such initiatives, often to great success. Like many others, we believe we must become good stewards of the Earth and address many issues to ensure that future generations inherit the same, or better, living standards currently available. These issues include carbon pollution, sea-level rise, extreme heat, more extreme weather events, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, and environmental justice. Our South Florida location is ground zero for negative outcomes related to all these issues. Hurricanes are predicted to become stronger, sea levels have already begun to rise, and extreme heat will put our most vulnerable stakeholders at risk. So, becoming more sustainable and resilient is an easy decision.

However, MODS is not embarking on a stealth or siloed operation. Leveraging our long history of institutional sustainability and green building practices and building on society’s trust in museums, we will actively involve as many stakeholders as we can to bolster the whole community. According to the American Alliance of Museums, people believe that museums, and especially science centers, are a highly credible source of information (Merritt, 2019). In addition, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that people trust science news from museums more than any other institution or news outlet (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2019). MODS wants to be a good steward of that trust and make positive change not only for the museum, but for the entire community. Through various education initiatives, the museum will focus on solutions to address the effects of climate change and lead museum guests, employees, and outside stakeholders to action.

Luckily, we are not starting from scratch. The City of Fort Lauderdale and, more broadly, Broward County, have already started research and policy implementation on a number of issues related to sustainability and resiliency. MODS is partnering with government and business interests to educate the community on climate issues and the solutions being implemented and developed, including the Broward County Resilient Environment Department and its Chief Resiliency Officer, plus the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance. This work is guided by the Broward County Climate Action Plan; a multi-disciplinary and inclusive document that focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emission and making sure communities are equally adapted to the changes coming through a warmer world.

Programs and Initiative Highlights   

Despite a global pandemic, with the creation of the new strategic plan in 2020 and the support of new and existing funders, MODS began several new sustainability initiatives.

  • Environmental Sustainability Manager

In the summer of 2021, MODS invested in creating a new staff position, Environmental Sustainability Manager (ESM). Because of our education-first mindset and our mission to connect people to inspiring science, the position is appropriately housed in the education department. The ESM creates new educational programs and curricula focused on sustainability and resilience issues. They are also charged with incorporating these principles into existing educational offerings.

Along with educational goals, the ESM is also responsible for helping museum leadership manage the museum’s overall sustainability plans. From aiding in the design of a new resilience exhibit, to creating a Sustainability Action Plan, the ESM’s role at MODS crosses boundaries into exhibits, building operations, and procurement departments.

Because environmental sustainability is one of the museum’s four core pillars, a cross-departmental perspective and interdisciplinary cooperation are essential to create a good sustainability action plan. To this end, the museum has adopted a philosophy from the sustainable business world: the Triple Bottom Line (TBL), is an accounting framework that measures an organization’s success not only in terms of monetary success but includes positive outcomes in the environmental and social realms. To put it simply, the Triple Bottom Line endeavors to drive positive change for people, planet, and profit. As MODS continues to evolve toward higher levels of sustainability and resiliency, we plan to incorporate the TBL philosophy more and more into every day and strategic planning.

  • Educational Programming Focused on Sustainability and Resilience

Since starting in the summer of 2021, the ESM began implementing educational programs centered on sustainability and resilience, the first being the Everglades EcoExplorer Internship, a paid internship intended to motivate high school students to become Environmental Ambassadors. EcoExplorer interns learn about the environment of South Florida, namely the Everglades, and how the natural resources of the community contribute to social health and prosperity. The students then become museum ambassadors, taking the knowledge they gain from field excursions and classroom experiences and delivering it to museum guests. This supports the internship program’s   goal to help students develop their work readiness by teaching them professionalism and public speaking skills.

In addition, the ESM, with help from museum leadership and several community partners, has begun a monthly guest speaker series focused on careers in resilience. Through this series, interns gain valuable insight from professionals in the sustainability and resiliency arena and learn about a number of possible career pathways, including careers in public policy with local/state government or private consulting firms, careers in engineering and architecture specializing in building resilient infrastructure and green buildings, careers in education specifically focused on climate education and healthy ecosystems, and careers in scientific research to find the best solutions for adapting to a changing climate. In addition to sparking interest in new fields, the series will create future change-makers for our community. Following its first-year success, the Everglades EcoExplorer internship program will nearly double enrollment, growing from thirty interns in four high schools to fifty interns from eight high schools. In addition, we will be moving from paying the interns a set stipend to paying them an hourly wage to promote accessibility and equity.

Furthering our goal to become a hub for resilience and putting our outside spaces to better use, the MODS Food Forest was installed during the summer of 2021. The once simple grassy area surrounding our outdoor Science Park is now planted with saplings and seedlings of a plethora of tropical fruit trees and shrubs. This rejuvenated space was generously brought to life by our partner organization, Thrive Lot, a public benefit corporation that designs, installs, and maintains edible landscapes and forest gardens in collaboration with local master growers and skilled specialists. The Food Forest demonstrates our commitment to community-scale actions achievable through partnerships—we would not have been able to install the garden without them.  Utilizing local knowledge through an organization called New River Gardens, Thrive Lot helps us maintain the Food Forest as well. The Food Forest is also a great example of an initiative that drives Triple Bottom Line positivity.  Planet:  Replacing grass with drought-tolerant plants means less maintenance and lowering irrigation needs means saving water.  People:  Carrying forward our mission of connecting more people to inspiring science, we are showing them where food comes from and giving them ideas on how they can do the same at home or in their neighborhood.  Prosperity:  The Food Forest has already garnered positive attention from community leaders and the local school district and has raised the profile of MODS as an organizational leader. Through their involvement in the Food Forest project, the ESM has become a new liaison for Broward County Public Schools (BCPS). Deepening this existing partnership allows MODS to collaborate with county educators to create impactful curriculum for both the county’s youth and MODS guests.

The partnership with BCPS is not limited to the Food Forest. MODS collaborates extensively with BCPS on many efforts; however, one event stands out for advancing sustainability and resiliency education: the Youth Climate Summit which will engage over 3,000 middle and high school students from all over the county on issues related to climate change. This upcoming summit is the fourth annual meeting and plans to expand on previous summits by offering two events:  a virtual two-day conference and an in-person, in-depth climate solutions summit.  Taking place this spring at MODS, the Youth Climate Summit will bring in local, regional, and national experts to lead sessions focused on solutions and how to take action, with a particular focus on environmental justice and inspiring youth to work toward fair and just solutions.

A Look to the Future

In leading a museum-wide transformation toward sustainability and resiliency, we see a bright, at times challenging, future. We are ready to adapt to the effects of a changing climate and lead our community to a better future by taking what we are already doing and expanding it one-hundred-fold.

At the center of our efforts lies a new permanent exhibit solely focused on resilience. Pathways to Resilience, now in the early stages of development, will occupy approximately 4,000 square feet on the museum’s first floor.  This exhibit will aim to educate museum guests on current issues related to climate change and inspire them to take action of their own. By concentrating on solutions to local issues, such as water conservation, lowering individual carbon footprints, and learning how to successfully advocate on neighborhood issues, as well as highlighting aspirational actions across the world, we anticipate that guests will leave with concrete ideas of what they can do to address the issues that are most important to them. In addition to creating a new exhibit, we are also updating current exhibits with an increased focus on resiliency. These updates will key in on topics such as hurricane and extreme weather preparation in our Storm Center exhibit, the benefits of healthy ecosystems provide, like flood protection and natural cooling through shade, native species conservation in our Ecoscapes area, and the science of human-induced climate change in the Prehistoric Florida exhibit.  These updates will align with messages in the new exhibit, creating a cohesive guest experience.

All building operations are also being evaluated to ensure internal systems are as efficient as possible. We are planning to expand the existing efficiencies of our LEED Silver designed Eco Discovery Center to the entire museum; the Sustainability Action Plan will detail steps to reduce energy, water, and waste and improve the indoor and outdoor experience for all stakeholders.  Specific actions such as switching to all LED-powered lights, renewing our building envelope to ensure unwanted warm air isn’t leaking in, and installing low-flow water fixtures throughout the museum are low-hanging fruit we know will help us save resources. Going beyond these simple fixes will include developing a Sustainable Purchasing Policy and Green Cleaning Policy to ensure environmentally and socially favorable products are brought into the museum, installing more renewable energy generation on-site via solar, wind, or green hydrogen, and installing rainwater catch systems for outside irrigation needs.  As MODS takes steps to bolster our own sustainability and resiliency, we will share our experiences and encourage as many community partners and stakeholder as possible to work together to drive positive change for TBL’s planet, people, and profit.

We have set a high bar for MODS:  transform our community into one that is more resource responsible and able to bounce back from disruptions caused by a changing climate.  But we will fail if we tackle this issue alone. We don’t have time for a world where individuals all try their hardest; we must work together to avoid catastrophic failure.  We believe that museums have a unique power to bring communities together and lead them to a better tomorrow.

  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (2019). Encountering Science in America. Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • Merritt, E. (2019). TrendsWatch 2019: Truth, Trust and Fake News. American Alliance of Museums. Retrieved from

Lance Cutrer is the first environmental sustainability manager at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Prior to this, he was a middle school science teacher and educational coordinator for an environmental learning program.