SRQ Magazine | September 2014
The Faulhaber households always valued science. Ping Faulhaber and her husband Fritz, both engineering majors, found both love and success while building motor components, and now a new generation of Faulhabers prepares to study engineering. But it wasn’t enough to keep the love of knowledge in their own home. Now, with Ping as executive director and Fritz as chairman of the Faulhaber Family Foundation, the couple turns its attention to ensuring a working science center keeps students on the Suncoast in love with the subject.
How has science contributed to your own family’s success? Ping Faulhaber: Our company, The Faulhaber Group, manufactures the motor gear heads and motion components for manufacturers serving medical applications, aerospace, robotics, military and various other applications. My husband’s father invented a special coil used in the motors that has very small volume but high power output, and that has been critical for these applications. I have a master’s and bachelor’s in engineering myself and started working for the company out of school.
Why did you decide to devote your philanthropic efforts to science education? Fritz Faulhaber: We started the foundation to help meet the need for a scientifically savvy population, starting with improved educational opportunities. Science, as taught in our elementary, middle and high schools, is mainly a textbook exercise with little actual experimental content. And engineering is seldom addressed in K-12. It is no wonder that our young people choose careers other than science, that qualified personnel for high-tech manufacturing is hard to find and fewer startup companies are created. The very lifeblood that powered America into the leading position in the world is slowly being drained away along with our manufacturing sector. The goal of the Faulhaber Foundation is to give students the opportunity, whether in school or not, to participate in the practical business, actually engaging all their senses and doing science and engineering instead of only reading about it. Ping: It's boring. A lot of kids don’t really get it and won't get into science because of how we teach them. I’ve heard so many comments like, “I really was enjoying science when I was little, but in school, it got tough and I didn’t think I was good.” If you have something to experiment with, you discover, explore and maybe become a good scientist. That’s why we wanted to supplement how we are teaching in school. But you can’t change the whole education system overnight. We started our foundation when our kids were not even in school yet.
Why is working with scientific equipment so vital? Ping: When you learn English and grammar, how to write, you go to a library and borrow books and immerse yourself in the discovery of literature. In science class, there is no such research. It has become very textbook-focused and curriculum-based. A class is just 35 minutes so by the time you start to get excited, it’s over. If you want to play science when you are little you can do it in the garage or kitchen, but when you get older there is no place for you to go. At least if you have a lending library, it can provide scientific experiments for you. Fritz: The Science Experiment Lending Library lends equipment to mainly schools, along with providing training on the use of the equipment where needed. The library takes care of all logistics for the equipment, including repair when needed. The service is free to schools, homeschoolers, clubs and other organizations. The equipment is normally supplied in classroom-size sets. The idea is to bring hands-on science into the classroom and into the hands of the students. Real understanding comes with doing and is no different with science and engineering. Science is an experimental art and involves the systematic exploration of nature, not simply the unquestioning regurgitation of facts. If we want to enthuse kids about science we must let them do science and open up the joys of exploration. Ping: We filled the library based on what classes were teaching, making it easy for teachers by matching what is available to the Sunshine State Standards. Since we moved here, the library now serves Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties.
In Sarasota, the foundation set up the Faulhaber Fab Lab. What prompted that decision? Fritz: The ideas of inventing, creating, making and tinkering have been a motivation and passion for us throughout our life. We wanted to give the community, old and young, a structured opportunity to engage in making new and unique creations. The Fab Lab is a place for personal manufacturing where things can be made on fabulous machinery in a guided way. And we saw an ideal opportunity to make this vision come alive in partnership with the now defunct G.Wiz.
But you then had to buy back the equipment in auction after the museum shuttered. How frustrating was that experience? Ping: We only realized their problems at G. Wiz after I went on the board. There was a big transparency problem. The board was told everything was fine, and was not told the truth until after we set up the Fab Lab. We thought about asking for the equipment back, but there were creditors and taking back the equipment would have been a liability. It was not a very good feeling, sitting in there in an auction trying to raise panels to buy the equipment a second time. But we were determined and thought this was important for the Fab Lab community who was using it, people who support science and would like to see this continue. Now it will reopen in the fall when we get the Suncoast Science Center renovated. We also want to use that space for teacher training and classroom availability, which is why we are working with SCTI [Sarasota County Technical Institute] and Suncoast Polytechnical. Fritz: The new incarnation of the Fab Lab on the SCTI campus has excited the artists, students, inventors etc. who had used the Fab Lab before and are anxious to get started again. Our new location will also bring a larger educational component as students can use the lab to learn about machinery, explore how things are made and participate in the design process for new products.
You will initially be housed on the SCTI campus; who is the most important audience to reach with the Suncoast Science Center? Ping: When kids are 10 years old, we find their interest in science falling. We want to focus on middle schools and high schools, which is not typical for science centers in this country. If we don't get kids in middle school, then in high school it’s far too late. That’s not as easy, which is why most science centers cater to younger kids, but if you have middle and high school kids coming here, then the younger kids will want to come to, and so will tourists.
Is the Fab Lab most beneficial to the business community, who can use the equipment for prototyping products, or for education purposes? Ping: They actually are connected. For middle-school kids and high-school kids, this is what gets them interested. You have got to make it fun and hands-on, but the other thing is it has to be relevant. If it connects with application in real life, that is what makes it more interesting. By involving business in the Science Center and bringing kids there too, you are connecting them. Fritz: The Suncoast Science Center has great plans to form the hub of a Sarasota Science Park and Science Institutes. The Science Center itself will provide the Lending Library, on site and in outreach, the Exploration Exhibit Zones within the Center, the dedicated Science in the Arts Institute, a new research facility for advanced high schoolers and businesses and a networking facility that connects and guides people to available science and engineering resources. We hope to locate the Center in the Celery Fields area and grow a Science and Technology Park surrounding the Center itself. The park would incorporate many additional Exploration Zones that are impractical for indoor placement. Renewable energy zones, advanced recycling strategies, environmental measurement and remediation stations and building/construction exploration are among the concepts being considered. The Science Park would also be home to several institutes that would concentrate on the strengths of Sarasota. We envision an institute for rowing/sports science, an institute for elderly and disabled assist devices and an institute for new materials and processes in the creative arts. All the institutes would be supported synergistically by the Sarasota Science Center Research Facility and the advanced prototyping capabilities of the Fab Lab. This is a big vision to be sure, but the core is the Sarasota Science Center and with time and the good will of the community, the whole science park concept can be realized.
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