There is almost always a wide variety of angles from which any piece of journalism can be approached, and most of the time, before I even sit down at my computer, I already have a fairly solid idea about how I plan to write an article.
This is not one of those times. Today I am torn.
Half of me would like to congratulate Molly Demeulenaere on her new position as Vice President of Development at the fifth-largest science organization in the United States, Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI). This is the half that also wants to use my little corner of TWIS to highlight Demeulenaere’s tremendous success in transforming Sarasota’s G.WIZ Science Museum from a rainy day attraction for kids to a valuable all-ages education center during the three years she spent as Executive Director.
Demeulenaere entered her position as G. WIZ’s Executive Director in 2009, when she was just 31 years old, after seven years cultivating her fundraising skills as the Director of Development for the Sarasota County Arts Council.
When Demeuelenaere joined the staff at G. WIZ, the museum was in dire straits. Attendance levels were lackluster at best and fundraising was virtually nonexistent.
“It was more of an attraction than an educational organization. People called us a science museum but we didn’t really have anything for high school kids and adults at the time, so I wanted to broaden the scope of the program to serve everyone in the community,” Demeulenaere said.
“My focus was to bring us back into mission-based programming around the STEM principle of science, technology, engineering and math.”
Demeulenaere forged a partnership between G.WIZ and The Faulhaber Foundation and through this partnership the Faulhaber Fab Lab was established at G. WIZ in May 2011. There are currently only 150 fabrication labs in the world and Sarasota’s Fab Lab at G. WIZ is the first to appear in the southeastern United States.
“That was a concept that originally started at MIT with the idea that anyone can invent almost anything,” Demeulenaere explained. “It’s a fully-equipped design shop, machine shop and woodworking shop that’s open to the public. People can come in with a crazy idea written on the back of a cocktail napkin and our Fab Lab can take them through the entire process of designing and creating it so that they can leave with a working prototype. The Fab Lab is what really started to change and broaden what people thought of G. WIZ.”
With the help of The Faulhaber Foundation, Demeulenaere also established a lending library for lab equipment so that local teachers could bring a hands-on science experience into the classroom, overcoming state and county budget cuts that prevent them from bussing students off campus for field trips.
“I believe that now is a crucial time in the country to emphasize the importance of bringing scientific literacy to the forefront and encourage hands-on education. We aren’t trying to replace formal education, but hands-on learning is fun and exciting for kids and it can provide that ‘A-ha!’ moment that gets kids to really enjoy science.”
Through the introduction of a wealth of new educational programming, the Fab Lab and the lending library for lab equipment, Demeulenaere has been pivotal in transforming public perception of G. WIZ. As a result, attendance levels are skyrocketing and the museum is thriving.
However, on April 30, Demeulenaere will bid adieu to G. WIZ and Sarasota as she steps into her new role as Vice President of Development at Tampa’s MOSI.
Remember how I mentioned that “other half” at the beginning of this article; the half that wants to take my angle in an entirely different direction? Here we go.
Demeulenaere’s impending departure is reminder of a frustrating epidemic that has plagued this town for far too long: the never-ending exodus of talented young professionals.
This is the half of me that wants to rant and rail; to chastise Sarasota for letting yet another invaluable young talent slip away and ride off into the sunset toward something “bigger and better;” because when I think about it, it just does not make sense.
Students flock to Sarasota from all over the world to study fine arts, animation and illustration at one of the top art schools in the United States, Ringling College of Art and Design. Just minutes down the road, the state honors college New College of Florida produces more recipients of the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship per capita than Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
Furthermore, AmericanStyle Magazine voted Sarsota #5 on the list of Top 25 Small Cities for the Arts in 2011, and Siesta Key still holds the title of #1 Beach in the United States, which leads me to believe that Sarasota is neither lacking in educational opportunities nor culture and natural beauty.
So why does young talent swoop in and out of town, destined never to return—or at least not until their AARP membership cards arrive in the mail?
“It’s a struggle to keep young professionals here, and it really just comes down to jobs and livable wages,” Demeulenaere said.
“It’s frustrating because every time we talk about what keeps young professionals here, I keep saying ‘Jobs keep us here;’ but a lot of the time it seems like everybody is saying, ‘We need another bar for young people to drink at and more things for them to do.’ I’m not leaving because I need a place to drink, I assure you. I’m leaving Sarasota for a better career opportunity.”
Demeulenaere added that although night life, culture and entertainment are important parts of the bigger picture, she believes that Sarasota needs to focus on bringing high-tech, STEM-related jobs to the community.
“STEM is the fastest growing segment of the economy and we have a huge opportunity to capitalize on that. The Sarasota school system is one of the best in our state, so we have kids that are going to come out of the school system and go into those fields—and wouldn’t it be great to employ them here?”
So what can we, as young professionals, do to promote change in Sarasota?
“You have to show up and do something about it. Complaining about it doesn’t do anything. We need to be at county and city commission meetings,” Demeulenaere said.
“Our generation doesn’t spend the time and energy to communicate, so [the local government] isn’t hearing us. We need to take action and we need to take responsibility for our own community. We can’t make other people do that for us. Getting involved, running for political office … That’s how change happens.”
Demeulenaere is but one of many young people who leave Sarasota for better opportunities, but her departure may also serve as a call to action.
Sarasota’s reputation for being nothing more than a sleepy retirement community is beginning to wane. With a thriving arts community, a growing music and night life scene, award-winning beaches and restaurants and numerous educational opportunities, young people are drawn to Sarasota. As local university attendance rises, so does the emergence of talented young professionals .
All that’s left to do is work toward promoting the job growth that will keep them here.
When combined, both halves of the journalist writing this article are merely the sum of one more young professional who is trying to make sense out of a life and career in Sarasota. Although those two halves had a difficult time collaborating to write this article, they can certainly agree on one thing: Molly Demeulenaere, MOSI is lucky to have you.
We wish you all the best in your endeavors and we can assure you that your presence in Sarasota will be missed.