Science is universal, from the air we breathe to the change of seasons to our manmade creations, and certainly what designates Forest Hills as “Forest Hills.” Meet Lisa O’Keefe, a dedicated Greenlawn, NY, resident who had a vision leading to the creation of Science-A-Peel, Inc. in January 2010.
It was founded as a public charity in New York State, with a mission of implementing a greater participatory level of public education in the science field. Science-A-Peel was coined to “peel back the layers to better understand how science addresses modern day issues.”
Now O’Keefe has high hopes of further developing that vision by opening the first science center of its kind in New York: a Brain Science Center in Forest Hills. She is gathering input on potential sites and drumming up community support.
The center would be viable to all; inclusive of ESL needs, the hearing and sight-impaired, and physically handicapped. In addition to coordinating diverse events, exhibits would be hands-on, interactive, utilize animatronics, and consistently rotate.
“There is no branch of science and no aspect of life that cannot be linked to the brain and then questioned,” she said. “Why do artists use certain colors in paintings, and why do sports improve brain function?”
Science-A-Peel will seek related sponsors, such as art galleries and sports organizations, and visualizes bonding with various Queens organizations. A brain museum would also be unique, since there are only two other brain museums, one in Europe and another in Wisconsin, according to O’Keefe.
Science-A-Peel is trying to acquire a Forest Hills building with old world charm between 3,000 and 9,000 square feet. A low-end purchase or a tax donation would be ideal, where the donor’s name would be used as part of the center’s name.
Possibilities are commercial properties, theaters, religious sites, banks, and firehouses, as long as it is asbestos-free. With a contractor on board who restored historic homes and museums throughout New York and Connecticut, the firm agreed to restore the center’s historic façade. If distinctive decorative features exist within, those would also undergo restoration and be incorporated into an interior showcasing hands-on exhibits.
A great example of creative reuse is Binghamton’s Roberson Museum and Science Center, which sensitively converted the historic Roberson Mansion.
O’Keefe values preservation, not solely upon aesthetic beauty, history, and culture, but as a science.
“Architecture is an important part of the hard sciences, based upon the materials used or how a building is constructed,” she said. “It also reflects social sciences, where you get a glimpse of the builder and a community’s people.”
One may speculate, “Why Forest Hills?” O’Keefe views Forest Hills as a heavily populated, accessible, and diverse area. Its board of directors shares in that diversity.
“They are uniquely qualified to devise exhibits that address diverse learning styles of the general public,” stated O’Keefe, who has a background in teaching, broadcasting, and government. “One board member is a psychologist specializing in Autism, and another opened 22 science centers in the U.S.”
Despite some great teachers and science centers, New York State has the 7th lowest proficiency in science, according to O’Keefe, who put part of the blame on budget cuts.
“Many students are not performing in the highest percentiles, such as ESL students or students with learning disabilities,” she said. “Teachers only have so much time with students, so Science-A-Peel developed diverse methods of getting students interested in learning science.”
One example of how Science-A-Peel will interact is by offering customized lesson plans for free, as well as composing material in a few languages.
Naomi and Gregory Sam of Bayside bring their eight year-old daughter Kristen Sam to Forest Hills’ Belle Arti Center for the Arts weekly. “Science programs are weak, basic, and repetitive in Queens elementary schools, so visiting this center would expose our daughter to more science and a different way of learning,” said Naomi.
Kristen expressed her interest in future visits. “I’ve been learning about the solar system and matter in school, but I want to learn about volcanoes, hurricanes, and tornadoes,” she said.
Business owner Peter Kambitsis of Ripe Juice Bar and Exo Café recognizes potential for a science center. “Forest Hills has a diverse and very educated crowd, and it is great to introduce something that will help develop our education,” he said. “Everything is easily accessible, too.”
As for potential sites, he said, “I envision a science center along Metropolitan Avenue where real estate is more economical and there are historic businesses such as Eddie’s Sweet Shop. If a site cannot be secured in Forest Hills, Flushing Meadow’s New York State Pavilion should be a candidate under a public-private partnership.”
As our brain convinces us to question nature, it is intriguing to determine what led O’Keefe on her path. Her greatest influences are her parents. On a personal level, they taught her about reputation and living life to the fullest with passion, honesty, and integrity.
“On a professional level, I have admired their career paths and have incorporated their zeal and knowledge in my own life,” she said.
Her father, Lt. Col, John F. Vallone (retired USAF), worked with the Atlas-Agena rocket and transitioned to head the recovery missions for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions for the Middle East, Africa, and Indian Ocean. Her mother, Louise Vallone, had a unique teaching background which helped advance her knowledge of the sciences.
“She taught me word game associations to help memorize facts, and diverse hands-on activities to increase my learning in a fun, active way,” O’Keefe said. “This was vastly ahead of its time, and proved decades later to be the way to educate diverse learners.”
Nicole Crowley coordinates creative fundraising events for Science-A-Peel, which educates the public about science in a family-based environment. In August 2012, she hosted a charity night in Maspeth and “The Amazing Kreskin” in Port Washington.
“The Great Greenlawn Sciencebed Race & Parade” is held annually. In the summer, there will be a traveling science exhibit, and Science-A-Peel will visit schools and libraries which request it.
Now in its fifth season, their weekly show “Science Is Appealing” highlights a branch of science and its relation to modern day issues, such as overpopulation and its environmental compromise, as well as bees, neuroscience, and radiology.
The public can be a co-host. Segments air on Cablevision channel 115 and are recapped at www.scienceapeel.com. In addition, Science-A-Peel’s interactive mission is fulfilled through website features including “Ask The Scientist” and the “Science Resource.”
“At all of our events, we are meeting people from Queens who show an interest,” said O’Keefe.
The public has been responding favorably by donating beneficial products for future exhibits, such as computers, flat screen televisions, and kits for robotics, earth science, and microscopes. Donation and sponsorship opportunities help make learning much more accessible and enjoyable. Enrich your brain by interacting with Science-A-Peel, and play a role in your future by offering a permanent home in Forest Hills.