Jill McNabb chuckled while mentioning that the acronym “STEM” had to be defined in conversations.
After all, studies into science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – have come a long way, and the demand for those skill sets in the workforce continues to grow.
This is one reason why Virginia and Loudoun County are investing in the first regional science center – to spark opportunities for children and adults.
“It’s solving real-world solutions and not just problems on a page ... and I hope that is what happens with the science center,” said McNabb, chair of the Children’s Science Center Board of Directors.
On April 2, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors took another step toward establishing the proposed Northern Virginia Regional Science Center near Dulles by committing $15 million toward the estimated $70 million project. The $15 million was part of the county's finalized fiscal 2020 budget.
The local contribution comes after the General Assembly included in the commonwealth's fiscal 2020 budget $2.3 million to initiate designs of the center, which will be established in partnership with the Fairfax-based Children’s Science Center and an extension of the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond.
Located on donated land at the Kincora development in Sterling just off Route 28, the proposed center is expected to be 10 times the size of the Fairfax Children’s Science Center in Fair Oaks Mall.
“By making this approval, I think Loudoun County will be making a fantastic step into the future of STEM, and they will look back on it as something well done,” Unanet CEO Fran Craig said.
Project officials estimate the STEM-focused center will serve 300,000 guests annually.
Additionally, the facility is expected to expand access to STEM education to 600,000 children in the region and be part of a statewide network of science centers, with access to industry partners in northern Virginia and the District of Columbia.
STEM jobs – such as mathematicians, software developers and statisticians – are among the top 20 fastest-growing occupations, according to a 2018 study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the study indicated that there is a lack of gender diversity in the science and engineering workforce. While 47 percent of women make up the nation's workforce, only 28 percent are in science and engineering fields, according to 2018 study by the National Science Foundation.
“My specific vent in addition to STEM in general is girls. Girls in technology, girls in STEM, making sure they stay in STEM and finding out how we can do that and support other women in tech industry,” Craig said.
Companies like Unanet, a cloud database firm, have long contributed to the Children’s Science Center, formally named the Children’s Museum of Northern Virginia.
In 2006, the Junior League of Northern Virginia joined the museum’s fundraising efforts, helping to rack up over $250,000 in funds and volunteer hours towards development.
Growth has continued for the museum, with nonprofit leaders and professional fundraisers leading to the Board of Directors.
Additionally, the center has been able to travel to schools, libraries and festivals across the region to showcase its offerings. In 2014, the center secured two museum locations leading to the interactive lab in Fairfax County and plans for the full-scale science center in Loudoun, with the amenities of a mixed-use development and a large nature preserve.
A economic impact study forecasts $121 million in benefits in the short term and $9 million annually from the science center, according to officials.
Broad Run Supervisor Ron Meyer (R) believes dedicating $15 million to the science center is the least the board can do compared to the millions the board is investing in infrastructure projects.
“It’s a modest price tag for the benefit it’s going to give to our young children in terms of inspiring them to learn about science and innovation,” Meyer said. “That value is priceless. We can’t just invest in transportation and traditional infrastructure. We can’t just invest in park infrastructure. We have to invest beyond school buildings and into hands-on learning, and that’s what this investment does.”
Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large), a vocal supporter of the center, said she's not concerned about the price tag.
"The children's science center is not going to be a cash positive endeavor, but there are some things that are more important than revenue, and what I believe this will bring – not just to educators and students in Loudoun – but for the whole region is going to be invaluable,” Randall said.
The total cost of the science center is projected to be over $70 million with the state and county supporting approximately two-thirds of the funding, officials said. The remaining funds will be secured through private donations as required to match the state’s contribution.
The next phase will include architects and engineers designing the facilities and exhibits. A new name and brand identity will also be explored. Science center developers have yet to announce an anticipated opening date.