Bridgeport's Discovery Center reopens with SHU partnership

Photo of Katrina Koerting

Visitors to the new Sacred Heart University Discovery Science Center & Planetarium can spend the day swimming, eating and hunting as a dinosaur. They can control how the aurora borealis dances across the night sky with a wave of their hand, and even try to land a rover on the moon.

These experiences are all part of new or enhanced exhibits at the former Discovery Museum, thanks in part to the new partnership with the university that allowed for these and other improvements. The center, located at 4450 Park Ave. in Bridgeport, is set to reopen Sept. 25 after being closed for more than a year due to COVID.

“The entire place is not only re-energized, but elevated,” said Erika Eng, the center’s executive director. “It’s a proper science center.”

She said the building has three floors of “completely re-imagined exhibit space,” most of which has been customized in-house. The planetarium was also upgraded with state-of-the art technology.

“We have the most cutting-edge planetarium technology in the state,” Eng said. “We’re just so excited to share it with the world.”

She said it’s “exhilarating” to be able to welcome the community back after being closed for so long.

The center closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19, but remained closed due to financial reasons, Eng said. State and federal funding helped, and the extended closing gave the center a chance to examine where it was, what it wanted to do and how it could get there, Eng said. The 18-month closing also allowed the museum to complete a large renovation project.

“We used that time really wisely,” Eng said.

She said teaming up with Sacred Heart was a natural progression. The university is just down the road from the center and a number of interns and volunteers were already connected to Sacred Heart.

The partnership was announced in November and went into effect in January.

Under the partnership, the university assumed the management of the building and took on capital costs. This includes the landscaping, plowing and cleaning expenses, which Eng said freed up her budget to put more money into the programs and exhibits. The museum staff also been increased from four to nine employees.

“The facilities team has been outstanding,” Eng said, adding the center is still an independent nonprofit organization.

Sacred Heart invested in the building’s infrastructure, bringing it up to the level of the facilities on campus. Upgrades included a new security system, technology, fiber optics, phones, 80 new computers and a new website, shudiscovery.org.

Eng said the center works with all of the university’s colleges in some way, from creating the exhibits in the IDEA lab to having the education students work with school groups and summer programs. Eng said using the university’s resources to create the exhibits has also kept costs down and really expanded what the center can offer.

For example, she said the museum has invested about $150,000 in the new or improved exhibits alone.

The partnership has also allowed the center to offer free admission to Bridgeport students on Wednesdays, though Eng said they’re still looking for other sponsors.

Ultimately, she said the goal was to be able to take students from all the way through high school, college and into job placements. Some of the current employees grew up going to the center, she said.

All of that is part of embodying the center’s mission: “STEM for all.” She wants all students to have access to the center, regardless of what school they attend, their affluence or their accessibility needs.

“We want to be the place people come for hands-on learning,” Eng said.

That expanded access is something the university welcomes, too.

“The partnership between SHU and the Discovery Science Center & Planetarium expands access so that all children in our region can experience the science center’s re-imagined interactive exhibits and programs,” said Michael Alfano, dean of SHU’s Isabelle Farrington College of Education.

Eng is excited to welcome school groups back for field trips into the newly renovated classrooms.

Each of the learning labs offered at the center meet the Next Generation Science Standards and students are able to complement what they learn in the lab with the hands-on elements of the exhibit.

“That’s how we learn, that’s how the brain works,” Eng said of the interactive portion. “To have that at our disposal — it’s an incredible resource.”

The center has expanded its reach to even more students. It switched to virtual programs after the pandemic put everyone in lockdown. The virtual platform mimicked the center’s in-person offerings and attracted school districts from all over. Eng said they plan to keep this element.

She said they plan to continue to grow to meet the needs of the community, as well as all of the surrounding school districts.

“This is only the beginning,” Eng said. “Consider this phase one.”