Book Review, Great Lakes Science Center, Museums, Northeast Ohio, Reading STEMs Learning, STEM Career Series, STEM Careers

STEM Careers Interview Series: Great Lakes Science Center Associate Director of Exhibits, Claire Dorsett

I am so pleased to introduce another incredible Cleveland, Ohio STEM professional, Claire Dorsett.  Claire is the Associate Director of Exhibits at the Great Lakes Science Center (GLSC) in Cleveland, Ohio.  Claire has a very unique story and educational background in English that eventually led her to a very creative STEM position that she loves!  

Claire Dorsett, Associate Director of Exhibits at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo provided by the Great Lakes Science Center.

As the Associate Director of Exhibits, Claire has an incredibly important job to ensure that the exhibits at the GLSC are both educational and fun for visitors!  She develops the storylines, themes, and goals for the exhibits, identifies field experts & partners within and beyond the community to help make the exhibits we see that are so educational and thorough, sources and licenses all the artifacts, etc. that go on display, and manages the organization and design of the gallery floor plans.  

If you have been to the GLSC, you may have seen the incredible exhibits that Claire has managed, with the most recent being the 7,800 square foot Curiosity Carnival!  She was also the exhibit developer for “VROOM! A Car Adventure.”

I am excited to share Claire’s interesting story in my STEM Career Interview Series below!

MTF:  When and how did you become interested in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields?  Do you have a specific memory or event that happened in your life?

CD:     I’ve always loved STEM fields! Growing up, I spent a lot of time turning over rocks to hunt for fossils, searching for constellations in the night sky, or watching the salamanders run each spring. At school, I joined Science Olympiad and Envirothon and competed at the state and national levels. Those clubs helped me dig into chemistry, engineering, and the natural world. They ultimately lead me to fall further in love with STEM and using science to puzzle out answers to difficult questions.

MTF:  Growing up, what were your favorite subjects and why? 

CD:     That’s a tough question! I know you’re probably expecting me to say “science,” but to be completely honest, my favorite subject was usually English. I have always loved reading and writing—but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy science, too! Chemistry was my favorite science class, both because I loved lab work and because I had such an inspiring teacher.

MTF:  What did you study in college and how / why did you choose it/them? 

CD:     I majored in English at Cornell University, with added coursework for an Anthropology minor. I chose English because it was what I loved: reading, writing, and analyzing literature through a critical lens. I was even lucky enough to spend a summer in Rome studying creative writing! Anthropology was more of a surprise. I took my first anthro class partially because it sounded intriguing and very different from my other classes, but also partially to satisfy a basic requirement. I ended up enjoying that first class so much that I took another… and then another, and another! Those classes helped inspire me to study abroad in Australia for a semester. In the end, I pursued the topics I was most curious and excited about. 

MTF:   What was your career journey to become an Associate Director of Exhibits at Great Lakes Science Center?

CD:     I actually had a completely different career just a few years ago! After college, I headed to New York City for an intensive 6-week publishing course at Columbia University. Then I got hired at Macmillan, one of NYC’s big publishing houses, where I settled into the editorial department at Roaring Brook Press. There, I edited children’s books—everything from picture books up through middle grade and young adult books. I relished working with authors and illustrators to help make their stories shine, but NYC wasn’t the right fit, and I felt like something was missing. Although a lot of my books had STEM themes, I craved more. 

So, when an Exhibit Developer position opened up at Great Lakes Science Center, I decided to go for it. It was outside my direct experience, but it played to all my strengths: researching, writing, editing, and storytelling. Instead of books, I would be producing interactive exhibits… but the audience was still families with kids, and I’d still be distilling complex concepts into engaging, bite-sized pieces! I technically didn’t meet all of the requirements, but I applied anyway and wrote a cover letter explaining why I thought my publishing experience would help me succeed. It caught my boss’s eye because it was so different. He said the storytelling focus was one of the things that made me stand out—and he gave me a chance! A little more than a year later, I began taking on more responsibility and got promoted to Associate Director of the department.

It can be intimidating to change paths, but that’s no reason not to try. You have to take a chance on yourself before anyone else can take a chance on you!

MTF: In your own words, how would you describe your job as the Associate Director of Exhibits at Great Lakes Science Center to a child?  

CD:     Every day is different. Some days, I’m talking with NASA scientists about their research. Others, I’m touring local companies or college campuses looking for exhibit ideas. Sometimes I even get to visit places like the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. or the International Spy Museum!

This all contributes to new exhibit ideas, where I get to take general topics like “cars” or “the circus” and search for the STEM themes in them. This involves a lot of research, but it’s fun research: like meeting with racecar builders, talking to welding experts, or playing carnival games over and over. Then, my team and I brainstorm ideas for activities that showcase the STEM themes we’ve found. That’s my favorite part! 

We have a special workshop where our fabricator helps us build prototypes for the different activities. Prototypes are like real-world, three-dimensional rough drafts—or models—that help us figure out how an exhibit will work and what it might look like. Once we figure out how everything will come together, I write out simple explanations for everything and collect photographs and images for the signage. Then, a graphic designer helps bring the signs to life… and we revise, revise, and revise some more. I always feel a little like an editor again at this stage, since there’s so much back-and-forth to get things just right!

MTF:  In your opinion, what are the most important attributes or characteristics that an Exhibit professional must have to be successful?  

CD: Creativity, adaptability, and empathy are three very important characteristics to have. You have to be able (and willing!) to think about problems from many different perspectives, and to continue looking for new and innovative solutions even when it feels like there are none to be found. 

Since things can change in an instant if a partner pulls out, if your budget falls through, or if a new opportunity pops up last minute, you need to be able to think on your feet and shift gears quickly. You’ll also be working with many different people, both within and beyond your museum. They often have very different opinions, so empathy is important. Empathy and strong communication skills also help you better serve your audience: kids and their families! In the end, it’s not about what you want or find interesting; it’s about what they need. 

MTF:  How do you keep exhibits fun, educational and interactive for kids and families? 

CD:     This one’s simple: we ask kids and families what they want! Part of the brainstorming and prototyping process is putting ideas in front of our audience to test them out before they get finalized. This helps us make sure they are as simple, intuitive, and effective as possible. We also consult with content experts from the community to make sure we’re portraying our STEM concepts as fully and authentically as possible, in ways relevant to the real world.

MTF: Where do you find your topics for exhibits and how far in advance do you need to plan before an exhibit can be brought to life for the public?  

CD:     Topics for the exhibits we develop in-house often come from our guests. We listen to what they’re interested in, curious about, or asking for. We also look for topics relevant to our community. For example, Vroom!: A Car Adventure, explored themes around Cleveland’s historically vital automotive industry. 

While it would be ideal to start working on larger exhibits a few years before they open, the reality is that we often work on tighter schedules—but that just keeps things exciting! The last few exhibits I’ve worked on have each taken about 9 months to create. That might sound like a long time, but it sure doesn’t feel like it!

MTF:  What have been your favorite exhibits at Great Lakes Science Center and why?

CD:     It’s tough to choose a favorite! My first exhibit, TapeScape: Sticky Science, was exciting because it was so unique. Our staff and a huge team of volunteers built a giant crawl-through structure—similar to the play tunnels at an arcade—entirely out of plastic wrap and packing tape wound around metal scaffolding. It’s amazing that the tensile strength of tape can be enough to support people! 

After that came Vroom: A Car Adventure, which was the first exhibition I developed without outside help. (We hired an artist/architect for TapeScape). It was challenging, but incredibly rewarding to see it come together. 

Prototype for VROOM! A Car Adventure. Photo provided by Claire Dorsett.

I’m also excited about the exhibition I’m working on now, which will celebrate Cleveland’s diverse industries and icons through a STEM and tinkering lens.

I guess I don’t have a favorite, since they’re all so different!

MTF:  What has been the most rewarding part of your career as the Associate Director of Exhibits at the Science Center?

CD:     Watching kids’ faces light up when they enter a finished exhibit space is the highlight of my job. All of the hard work that goes into exhibit planning immediately becomes worth it! Hearing from families about the adventures they had or memories they made at an exhibit is an amazing feeling.

That being said, getting to know the gifted, diverse team here at Great Lakes Science Center has also been incredibly rewarding! My colleagues inspire and challenge me every single day.

I also love that I’m constantly learning new things, often directly from experts in their fields. My job means I’m regularly talking to NASA engineers about space robots; meeting with internationally competitive student racecar teams to hear about their journeys; or even trying out new virtual reality technology.

MTF:  What has been the most challenging part of your career as the Associate Director of Exhibits at the Science Center?

CD:     Distilling complex concepts down into simple, understandable chunks can be tricky. Think about it this way: there are scientists who spend their whole careers researching some of the concepts I’m responsible for creating exhibits on! Learning those concepts well enough myself that I can translate them for kids and family audiences can be challenging—but it’s a challenge I love.

MTF:  Do you have fun, exciting or even embarrassing memories or stories from your STEM career that you would be willing to share?

CD:     My fabricator pranked me once by instructing me to remind our boss (the Vice President of Exhibits) to add a set of “monopole magnets” to an upcoming parts order. Of course, there is no such thing as a monopole magnet… but I had so many other things on my mind that I didn’t think twice about it until a split second after I’d reiterated his instructions. They both got a good laugh out of that one, and I had to laugh at myself, too! 

MTF:  What would your advice be to parents and / or educators to help children build confidence and interest in the STEM fields?  

CD:     Engage with them! Read aloud to them, take them to the library, and encourage them to explore anything and everything they’re interested in. There’s STEM everywhere: in the natural world, in technology and games, in architecture and engineering, and beyond. Let them play. Ask questions to get them thinking, and help them make connections between concepts. Support their curiosity. When they ask questions you don’t know the answers to, don’t be afraid to admit it—and then make it an adventure as you search for those answers together! Reach out to experts. Write letters. Visit museums. Let them use real tools, tackle real tasks, and take some controlled risks (all with proper supervision, of course). Let them fail, and help them understand that “failure” is just part of the process.

MTF: If you could give advice to your younger self, based on your career journey so far, what would it be?

CD:     Don’t underestimate yourself! It’s easy to fall prey to Imposter Syndrome, but you’re capable of more than you realize. Take the risk; take the class; apply to that program/internship/job you’ve been eyeing. It may seem like everyone else around you knows who and what they want to be, and what path they’ll take to get there. Most don’t. They’re faking it till they make it just like you are. There’s no single path to success. In fact, there’s no single definition of “success,” so figure out your own instead of subscribing to someone else’s. It’s never too late to change direction.

MTF:  Is there any other advice you have for children that are interested in becoming an Exhibit Professional at a Science Center?  

CD:     Start thinking about what you find interesting or successful in an exhibit. What makes you stop and read a sign instead of walking right on by? What makes you linger, or keeps you coming back? What kinds of topics would you want to know more about? Look for the STEM all around you every day, and start noticing what makes it engaging—or difficult. Those are all great starting points!

VROOM! A Car Adventure street sign layout. Photo provided by Claire Dorsett.

MTF:  Is there anything else that you would like to add?

CD:     Too often growing up, STEM and the arts felt like “either/or.” Since the classes met during the same period, I could take chemistry or I could take newspaper. I could study to become a scientist or train to be a writer. 

It doesn’t have to be “either/or.” You can have “and” instead! Find a way to make it work. Contribute as a guest writer if you can’t take the class. Talk with your professors to create a schedule that works for you. If none of the careers on your radar feel like the right fit, don’t stop looking. If the one you chose doesn’t feel like the right fit, don’t be afraid to pivot. Ask people you admire about their jobs and how they got there. Pitch your uncommon narrative as a positive. You have diverse skills. You have a unique perspective.

Maybe you’ll be a science writer, or a technical writer, or a researcher. 

Maybe you’ll edit books about STEM concepts. 

Maybe you’ll develop museum exhibits.

Thank you so much to Claire for sharing her STEM story and to the GLSC for allowing me to interview one of their STEM professionals whose work is so important to our community!  I loved learning about both her non- traditional STEM career path and the role that she serves at the GLSC!   

I loved Claire’s last message about how the arts and sciences do not and should not be separated.  I completely agree – they are intertwined.  Knowledge in one area will help you in the other.  If both fields interest you, you can do both!  I can relate to this so much – I loved writing and chose to be an engineer because I also loved science.  Some engineering positions do require a lot of technical writing!  And just as writing requires creativity, engineering does as well!

I also LOVE Claire’s recommendation to read books to your children so that they can explore everything they wish to explore about the world!  Books are an incredible resource to allow children to explore the world, especially topics that are too far away or distant to explore physically.

SPOILER ALERT: Claire shared with me some of her favorite STEM books! I’ll be sharing those later this week in my Reading STEMs Learning Series!

If you are inspired to learn more about the GLSC or check out some of Claire’s work, be sure to follow the science center on Instagram @greatlakessciencecenter, Facebook @greatlakessciencecenter, and Twitter @GLScienceCtr.  

I can’t wait to share more STEM Career Interviews from professionals across the Cleveland area and at the GLSC!  Stay tuned and stay curious!  

If you are inspired to share your STEM story, please reach out to me at momgineeringthefuture@gmail.com.

-Kristen

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