Seeing the Future and Taking Steps to Get There: Discovery Museum Acts on Its Commitment to Sustainability

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 Neil Gordon, Discovery Museum

The news about climate change, the environment, and the state of our planet is frightening and discouraging. In the face of it all, how do we create hope? John Fraser, noted conservation psychologist, has stated that a focus on solutions and actions can reduce fear and increase hope. And hope, Fraser says, “is a targeted way of seeing the future and taking steps to get to that future.”

Children’s museums are all about hope for the future, but actions to fight climate change that are environmentally positive have not been a focus for many of them. I share the experience of the Discovery Museum in the hope that any insights it yields will help us all take more action and inspire our visitors to do the same.

Building on a Foundation of Environmental Focus

This year we are celebrating Discovery Museum’s fortieth year. Over the last decade, we have grown from two small museums into one large museum with pre-pandemic attendance over 200,000 and a $2.7 million budget. The museum has a strong focus on science and nature, with 4.5 acres of accessible, outdoor exhibit space adjacent to 180 acres of town-owned, wooded trails that we program. Connecting kids and families with nature and operating sustainably have long been important goals for us.

Discovery Museum first articulated its commitment to environmental sustainability in 2007. Asserting that “we are keenly aware of the interrelationships of humans and the natural world and our obligations to be good stewards of that world,” the organization adopted a vision statement to become “a premier community museum that embodies discovery learning and environmental stewardship.” Formal goals included becoming a “green” organization and encouraging others to take responsibility for the environment. Two years later, in 2009, a new Master Plan for Campus Expansion included a concept for building a new Environmental Discovery Museum featuring photovoltaic panels, a windmill, a composting area, and an aquifer recharge zone. Unfortunately, the 2008 recession forced the museum to focus almost exclusively on shoring up finances and building our audience. It was not until 2013 that the museum was in a place to contemplate a future campus renovation and initiate a capital campaign to fund it, this time with a focus on accessibility—by then, a pressing capital need and programmatic focus.

Over the last decade, our environmental work focused on the goal of connecting kids with nature, both to raise awareness and promote the physical and mental health benefits of outdoor play. In 2015, we hired our first Outdoor and Environmental Educator. The following year, we opened Discovery Woods, an award-winning, one-acre, fully accessible nature playscape and treehouse. With a goal of encouraging “every kid, every day, outside to play,” we also deepened our Backyard and Beyond program series to offer a range of year-round outdoor experiences for children of all ages and levels of comfort with outdoor play. Coinciding with the opening of our expanded and renovated, accessible building in 2018, we also changed our longtime tagline, “Hands On, Minds at Play,” to “Science. Nature. Play.” This change reflected our programmatic evolution, elevating our message that getting kids outside is a first step to developing an appreciation for the natural world and a sense of responsible stewardship of its resources.

We have also taken steps to advocate publicly for these values, including signing the We Are Still In (WASI) pledge, a joint declaration of support for climate action, signed by more than 3,900 CEOs, mayors, governors, tribal leaders, college presidents, faith leaders, health care executives, and others; joining America Is All In, a coalition to develop a national climate strategy; supporting the Town of Acton in declaring a climate emergency; becoming a member of the Acton Climate Coalition; and presenting programs addressing environmental topics through our Discovery Museum Speaker Series.

Walking the Talk

We have increasingly wrestled with how to take concrete steps to be visibly and demonstrably sustainable in our own operations as a key strategy for inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards.

Our actions—how we operate and what we model for the world around us—are as important and maybe even more so than what we strive to explicitly teach as a museum. W.E.B. Du Bois said, “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” The environment we create, and what kids and families take from that, is an influential tool. The goal is to motivate families to adopt more sustainable viewpoints and practices at home, and support environmentally sound public policy. We wanted to more visibly “walk the talk” as a critical element of our educational approach.

Recognizing this, we knew we needed a plan.

One of the first things we decided to do was look for advice and guidance. We had lots of questions about scope, level of detail, what kinds of goals we should have, and even how we should define “sustainability” for our organization. Luckily, we had some prior experience working with Sarah Sutton, who helps places like ours through her organization Environment & Culture Partners. She provided positive feedback on our goals, an invitation to join with other cultural institutions as part of We Are Still In, and some great links to useful resources.

One especially useful resource for us was the WASI list of commitments. Sarah noted that others had used this list as a framework for creating their own sustainability plans. A white paper from Museums Australia had a very similar list. Based on a review of these examples, it made sense for us to follow their approach.

Our framework was built around a set of “commitments”:

  1. 1. Commit to increased use of renewable power
  2. 2. Commit to understand and reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  3. 3. Commit to reduce materials consumption and waste
  4. 4. Commit to reduce the impact of transportation
  5. 5. Commit to reduce water usage
  6. 6. Be publicly committed to sustainability
  7. 7. Commit to education and communication
  8. 8. Integrate climate change into portfolio analyses and decision making

The process for developing our plan was relatively simple and streamlined. Given our long commitment to environmental education, little discussion was needed about whether to formalize our goals and objectives. We moved straight to researching and producing a plan focused on action steps. Key to this was establishing the museum’s baseline environmental impact, which we did with the tremendous support of a skilled intern who self-described as a “sustainability geek.” With her help, we found answers to a range of questions. How much energy do we use, and in what ways? What level of greenhouse gas emissions do we produce? What does our water consumption look like? How many miles are we driving? How many deliveries do we get? How much waste do we generate? What are our cleaning supplies and the materials in our exhibits and programs made of? In what ways do we talk about the environment? And many more.

For some of these questions the data was readily available. Our utility company is very good about keeping track of our electricity, oil, and natural gas usage. Our water company was a bit trickier, as they do a poor job in regularly reading the meter. In some areas, no real good data source existed. For example, the waste collector empties the dumpster on a regular schedule, whether it is full or half empty.

Turning Our Vision into Reality

There are a number of models that can estimate greenhouse gas emissions based on energy usage or miles driven; our goal was to find one that was relatively simple to use and easily available to us. The model used by our intern produced easy-to-understand visual representations of our greenhouse gas sources. This was useful for discussing our action steps with staff and the board, as it made the priorities much clearer.

One interesting data point stems from our being a suburban museum with effectively no public transportation option. Everyone (mostly) drives here, so we used visitor zip code data to come to a pretty good estimate of miles driven by our visitors. As it turns out, this is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions for the museum, and as you would expect, not the easiest to address.

We recognized that our data collection efforts were not perfect, but we decided rather than devote lots of time and resources to get perfect data, we would create objectives for filling in the blanks later. Even though our measures of progress would be less than precise, we were moving forward.

Our analysis of this imperfect data became the platform for the development of concrete goals and actions, and what we hoped were reasonable timeframes for accomplishing them. We also committed early on to implementing our plan transparently and allowing for flexibility as we make progress and learn along the way.

The most visible part of the plan is our project, to be completed in mid-2022, to produce solar electricity onsite to meet 100 percent of our campus energy needs—and then some. The plan also outlines our approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and becoming carbon neutral; reducing water usage; minimizing waste generation; investing sustainably; and advocating for climate action. All of this will support an environmental education effort that will connect kids and families with nature, help them learn in partnership with the natural world, and inspire them to advocate for sustainability—all in the fun, hands-on Discovery Museum way. The final plan includes 29 action steps, spanning all areas of museum operations, to be taken over the next several years. These actions include discrete tasks such as replacing pavement with permeable surfaces and redirecting stormwater to groundwater recharge. The plan also outlines goals for ongoing action, such as investing sustainably, building community partnerships to advance our environmental work, and advocating publicly for our values.

A Commitment to Flexibility and Progress

Implementation of our plan is now underway. We have created a Sustainability Plan Team made up of staff members throughout the museum who have primary responsibilities for one or more of the action steps articulated in the plan. The team meets monthly to review progress on each of the steps, share ideas or concerns in moving steps forward, and identify new or modified actions that we might take. In this way we have peer support and peer accountability for the plan, making sustainability more of an organizational norm.

The Sustainability Plan Team holds regular discussions on our progress, providing a good tool to address the built-in imperfections of the plan itself. For certain action steps, better ideas have emerged from the work together. The team has become comfortable with the idea that we are both implementing the plan and improving the plan at the same time.

A good example of this approach centers on our ideas about visitor vehicle emissions. The plan calls for the museum to implement a system of visitor-purchased carbon offsets as a means of mitigating the emissions, not eliminating them. The plan anticipated a mandatory approach as well as a significant visitor education component. The team realized, however, that the logistics of promoting, educating about, and collecting offsets would be challenging. We will likely need to implement the plan on a targeted basis first, such as to members, to work out the kinks. Efforts to address this biggest source of our greenhouse gas emissions continue.

Importantly, we also want to model external accountability. We engaged outside voices to review our plan drafts, adding perspective. The current version has been published on our website and shared across our audience with a request for feedback. The Board of Directors has formally approved and adopted the plan, and we have begun to recruit for an external Sustainability Advisory Group, which will conduct an annual review of our progress and report on recommendations for improvements and changes.

We recognize our vision will take time and resources and are honored that many have stepped up to help support our work. Most notably, the Sheth Sangreal Foundation has committed $1 million over the next five years to activate our sustainability and inclusion goals, and has challenged the community to match their investment in our plans. We will be asking everyone to join them in helping us leverage our culture of play-based learning to inspire families to help sustain our world.

It’s also important to note that we are approaching our sustainability work with full knowledge we must also be engaged in its intersections with racial and social justice. We know that the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately affect people with low incomes and people of color. And we know that access to the outdoors and nature-based learning experiences are less available to many. To us, becoming more sustainable is about more than just leaving our children a planet with adequate resources. It is also about achieving greater harmony in the present between the environmental, economic, and social outcomes—both locally and globally—of our choices and actions. We are therefore committed to pursuing our sustainability objectives in ways that also promote equity. In many ways, all of this is integral work for the museum. In other ways it is new and fresh, because we’ve made a renewed commitment to sustainability, made urgent by the world around us. We are energized and motivated and we hope others in our field will join with us, with combined, greater effect on both our communities and the natural world.

Neil Gordon has served as CEO of the Discovery Museum in Acton, Massachusetts since 2009.

Financially Sound Solar

Once you decide that solar electricity is the right thing for your organization, the question quickly turns to: does it make financial sense? In the Discovery Museum’s case, we were pleasantly surprised by the financial sense that an investment in solar made.

We started with a very simple model in mind: we would fundraise for the cost of installation and use the annual electricity savings to support our environmental education programs. Thus, we would describe the investment in solar as an endowment of the programs. This idea made some sense pre-pandemic, but quickly looked silly in the face of needing to raise funds just to stay open. That led us to understand the economics in much more detail.

We quickly identified several companies that specialize in working with nonprofits on solar projects and chose to work with Resonant Energy, based in Boston. Resonant was able to show us a model of solar financing that involved “selling” the federal tax credits (obviously, we would not be able to use them directly), estimating our energy savings, selling excess electricity to other nonprofits at a discount, and maximizing other incentives (in our case, solar incentives offered by the state of Massachusetts). The access to the federal credits is a bit complicated and you’ll want a lawyer for that work, but it results in a 12 to 15 percent “savings” right off the top. Resonant was able to show a 25-year financial model that accounts for decreased production over time (we were surprised to learn that panels wear out), operating costs such as maintenance, changes in electricity rates, and so forth. To support our analysis, we put together a Solar Task Force of board and non-board experts that reviewed the modeling and evaluated our options.

The Solar Task Force was able to recommend to our board that the museum finance this project. With low interest rates and a good bank, we put in place a loan that should be paid back in about eleven to twelve years. The projected cash flow is positive in year one, thus actually meeting one of our original goals to support programs using the sun!