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When it Comes to Volunteering, Know Your Audience

Over the last several weeks I’ve had the chance to volunteer at the Sciencenter in Ithaca, NY.  The Sciencenter is near and dear to my heart as my wife Amy and I have been taking our five-year-old daughter there ever since she was a few months old.  It’s been amazing to see her develop and enjoy the museum more and more as she’s gotten older and can understand more.  It’s become a place where she’s able to explore in a hands-on way – plus it’s fun for the older folks who are really kids at heart. Rightly so, its tagline is “Look, Touch, Listen & Discover.”

I signed up to volunteer a few months ago and the process to become a volunteer there has been an eye-opening experience for me.  The mission of the Sciencenter is to engage, educate, and empower children through science and in order for a volunteer to be effective at this, there are a number of things that are unique to operating in this context.  This is evident in the extensive training that the group at the Sciencenter excels at.

If you think about it, as a volunteer, you are responsible for trying to convey what can be complex concepts to children (and adults!) at a variety of ages and levels of understanding.  As you are interacting with guests, you have to first get their attention, keep their attention, make the interaction fun, and get them to start asking questions.  It really is all about leading an engaging discussion and to a certain extent, it’s a sales pitch on science.  If you don’t get it quite right, well… they walk away.

The first event that I volunteered at was the “members only” night for the new “Crime Scene Lab” exhibit that just opened.  The event was two hours long, but the volunteers were expected to arrive two hours before the start.  When I arrived, there were approximately 10 volunteers.  For a little over an hour, we were trained on what they call “Interactive Floor Programs” or IFPs.  Here they taught us ways to engage and interact with guests and also how to run the experiments at our stations.  My station was “Be an Ink Detective!” where we used Chromatography as a way to match different pens and ink used in writing letters.

In keeping with the crime scene theme, I made up an elaborate story about a ransom letter that a thief left and testing the ink from pens found at two suspects’ houses against the ink in the ransom letter to figure out which one was guilty.  This was a great story for explaining how Chromatography could be used – at least I thought.  When my first guests arrived – a mom and a 2 year old, I quickly realized my story didn’t quite work for the 2 year old. I had to adjust.  Over the next two hours, I came up with different versions of the story – everything from telling the kids that they were detectives working with Scooby Doo (apparently most kids don’t know Scooby Doo these days) to basically, not even telling the story and just asking if they wanted to see a rainbow (most effective).


This past week, I was trained for ongoing volunteer program work – to be a “Blue Coat Volunteer.”  Blue coats work in shifts of a couple hours or more and roam about the museum to help people understand exhibits.  Again, the training here was extensive and well thought out and also really focused on engaging the guest.  We broke up into teams and had different stations to train on.  Most importantly, we had to come up with high level pitches of what each of our stations’ purposes were and list out three different “enticing” statements/questions for guests, in order to draw them into the station.  My team had the Infrared Camera station, and our favorite line was “Do you think your mommy or daddy is hotter?”

My favorite part so far though was creating my name tag – about 8 of us sat around a table and colored our volunteer name tags, each unique to the design and colors we came up with using colored pencils.  Also, the best part about our name tags is that as we complete different trainings, we get different stickers to add to our name tags.  Me and another guy were trained on IFPs, so we were clamoring to get our little pink smiley face stickers for this (see below – oh yeah!).  Hello, can you say gamification?


Overall, it’s been a great experience and I look forward to continuing to help out the Sciencenter and meet new people as well as log my hours with the brand new GiveGab mobile web app.  w00t!  Kudos to the Sciencenter staff who clearly have thought through their volunteer training and onboarding processes, made them fun, and have seamlessly tied them back to their mission – “Engage, Educate, and Empower.”

— Aaron Godert, CTO and Co-Founder at GiveGab

…a “more, happy volunteer”