DoSeum Chief Executive Officer Daniel Menelly
Daniel Menelly, the DoSeum's CEO, has been selected to attend management training at Harvard Business School. Credit: Courtesy / DoSeum

After an extensive national search, The DoSeum’s board of trustees on Tuesday announced it has appointed science educator and nonprofit management expert Daniel Menelly as the children’s museum’s new chief executive officer.

Menelly is the current president and chief science officer at the Rochester Museum & Science Center in Rochester, New York. He will take the helm of The DoSeum on Feb. 1, 2018.

“The DoSeum is very excited to welcome Dan, knowing he brings exceptional leadership skills to San Antonio and lead this incredible place that promotes joyful learning for all kids in our community,” stated Suzanne Goudge, president of The DoSeum’s board. “While our search took some unexpected time, Dan is definitely worth the wait. Dan will be such an asset to our local community as well as the state of Texas.”

San Antonio’s interactive children’s museum offers youngsters opportunities to learn about science, math, art, and literacy through exhibits and innovative experiences. Unique exhibits include an interactive puppet parade, a musical staircase, a robot named Baxter, a spy academy, and more.

The DoSeum
The DoSeum is located at 2800 Broadway St. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Following a $52 million campaign to move out of its cramped East Houston Street location in 2015, the former San Antonio Children’s Museum rebranded as The DoSeum and relocated to a highly visible site near other museums and across from Brackenridge Park.

Julie Huls, who has served as interim CEO since Vanessa Lacoss Hurd announced she would step down in September 2016, will remain on board until Jan. 31.

“We are so grateful to Julie for leading The DoSeum while we conducted the search,” Goudge stated. “Julie enabled us to take our time with our search and we consider ourselves extremely lucky to have had such a capable leader guide us during this interim period.”

During a recent interview from his home overlooking a chilly Lake Ontario, Menelly told the Rivard Report he was raised on a farm in New England. He is the youngest of five and the son of an inventor and physicist.

“I grew up as a tinkerer, in the basement and garage. My dad and I bonded through hands-on learning and inventing,” he said. “We made our own ice cream, had huge gardens, and we were always building, so it was a sort of practical upbringing.”

In school, Menelly enjoyed science and later became a biologist. He discovered his love for teaching while working as a substitute teacher by day and attending graduate school at night. During his 20-year teaching career, Menelly became fascinated with constructivist learning theory – constructing meaning from objects, or what museums do – and authored several academic articles on the subject.

DoSeum Chief Executive Officer Daniel Menelly
DoSeum Chief Executive Officer Daniel Menelly

“That’s how I ended up in the museum world,” he said of a career that combines his interests and training in teaching, media, and policy. “It’s like teaching, but with a very public context.”

But while teaching in a museum setting is fun, it can be challenging. “People can just walk away if it’s not interesting,” Menelly said. “You have to really think about what you can do to keep them interested … So museums are becoming very important to help schools with the question of engagement. I’m really excited to train teachers [on] the tools of museum education.”

Menelly trained in research and STEM policy through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Teachers and Einstein Fellowship programs. He was education adviser for the Science House Foundation as well as the producer and host of its Videoscience app, a free online resource with experiments and lessons for emerging STEM educators.

While at the National Science Foundation, Menelly traveled to San Antonio for training and encountered The Doseum, which he said he admired for its “hands-on, minds-on” learning environment in a city rich with culture.

“The Tricentennial is coming up, and in situations like that, there’s a chance to build partner[ships], energy, and interest in these shared experiences,” he said. “We saw that last summer with the eclipse, and by the way, San Antonio is in the path of the next eclipse in 2024. The 300th anniversary is a bit like the eclipse, and I see the potential to build excitement around that.”

As a science media adviser for a variety of videographic tutorial and science commentary productions. Menelly has received awards for science teaching and mentoring and holds U.S. patent awards for teaching tools he developed during his 20 years as a science educator.

This past Sunday, he spent the afternoon demonstrating to a group of Boy Scouts one of his patented projects – an “alien magnet ball” so powerful that, when tossed up, it sticks to the ceiling.

“The patent was to show kids how you can claim an idea [the] same way you claim a piece of land,” he said. “It’s a patent and an invention if it does something that’s not been done before. The reason I like it is because it’s counterintuitive, and kids say, ‘How does that work?’”

Menelly is passionate about making STEM education accessible to all and has made a career out of adapting such tools and learning models. But his first “aha teaching moment” actually came through a tool he developed for a middle school science lesson.

“I had a student who was pretty unhappy and a tough kid [who] struggled in school. He was an 8th grader in my science class, and I was building a lesson where we create an oscilloscope,” Menelly said of a tool made from a coffee can, balloon, and mirror that can be used to see sound waves. The boy asked him if the oscilloscope would work with a dog whistle, which makes ultrasonic sounds humans can’t hear.

“It was one of those moments I realized that among these kids, many have this raw intellectual prowess – they can think deeply, but they need a lesson or experience to bring that out,” he said. “He was only 14, but thought of really smart, interesting questions. I thought, ‘Wow, if you could tap into that natural intelligence in youth, the questions they came up with are more interesting than what I could come up with.’ … From that moment on, I took my best lessons from the kids.”

Later, as president of the 105-year-old public science institution in Rochester, Menelly directed and oversaw all program and exhibition activities. Prior to that, he was vice president of STEM at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he directed science, technology, engineering, and math programming at the institution dedicated to public science education.

In Rochester, he held the job title of chief science officer, which he said makes people smile when they recall it’s the same title first held by actor Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek character Spock.

As with most nonprofits, Menelly’s job as CEO will include development and fundraising. “I will participate in that,” he said, “but … I want to put learning and quality of engagement first.

“I find that once you have a model worth exploring, people want to be part of it. You have to really think imaginatively about social innovation. Then you attract philanthropists. Because we are in a new era of philanthropy – the era of venture philanthropy where people and foundations want to invest in social good. But they want to see something truly unique, interesting, or truly promising.”

He said he believes The DoSeum will reach its goals “if people see [the museum] as a convener of thought, and if educators, researchers and policy makers in the community see The DoSeum as critical piece of the infrastructure.”

“This is the golden age of informal learning,” Menelly said. “Right now, we are understanding learning at a very fast pace. We are learning about how children come to understand science, so it’s really important we act on that knowledge.”

An uncle to seven nieces and nephews, Menelly said there is no one exhibit he likes best about The DoSeum, designed by Lake|Flato Architects. Instead, he appreciates how thoughtfully engineered it is, the fluid boundaries between the inside and out, the full spectrum lighting, interplay with water, and the museum’s immersive story spaces.

“To me that’s a great morning,” he said. “If kids gets to wander and play, they are better off.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.