Janeane MacGillivary
The Navigator

Nanaimo might have a science centre one day thanks to Liz DeMattia, co-founder and executive director of NS3, the Nanaimo Sustainability and Science Society.

Since proposing the idea to the City of Nanaimo in 2010, DeMattia and society president Sue Durnin have never doubted it will happen. 

The two mothers met shortly after DeMattia came to Nanaimo six years ago from Boston. She’s an ecologist with more than 15 years experience in environmental research, education, and community outreach, and currently works as a biologist at VIU. Durnin has been an environmental consultant for just as long. She had recently visited the Arizona’s Children’s Museum and saw the potential for a science centre in Nanaimo.

DeMattia says they both recognized a lack of opportunity, especially in science, for people in the mid-Island. That, coupled with the fact there are no specialized science teachers in the provincial K-7 school system, brought the idea into focus.

“I’m a conservationist, so there’s no way we’re going to conserve what we don’t know,” she says.

Although she finds research satisfying, as a self-declared extrovert, she also enjoys the challenge of getting something like a science centre started. The systematic way in which NS3 has approached the project reads like the Science Centre Planning page on the Association of Science—Technology Centre’s website.

Step one is to “Build a Strong Relationship with your Community.” The board of directors and advisors assembled by the organization includes science educators and outreach specialists, a lawyer, planner, chartered accountant, organizational developer, fundraiser, and builder.

The biology department at VIU and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have been behind the project from the beginning. Employees at engineering firm Vehicle Mounted Air Compressors (VMAC) in South Wellington are the centre’s biggest sponsors, donating money and time as volunteers committed to getting others excited about science.

NS3 has successfully applied for grant after grant, including a recent one to visit other science centres to see what makes them work. The group has completed a public survey, a Strength/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threat (SWOT) analysis, a feasibility study, financial projections, a business plan, and a draft capital campaign­—all this while running several well-attended programs in the community. These include spring break Science on the March programming at Country Club Centre; Trash to Treasure in the schools; and Science in the Park, free drop-in summertime science fun for kids in School District 68 and 69.

Last May, NS3 was in the news with DeMattia announcing its partnership with VIU to offer summer science camps to kids.

In September, the Applied Science Technologists and Technicians of BC donated $2K as part of the funds required to match $20K from the Vancouver Foundation for a mobile science van. Woodgrove Chrysler, Nanaimo Insurance Brokers, and VMAC sponsored the vehicle that now delivers after-school programs almost daily to local schools.

Vancouver’s Scienceworld, one of NS3’s collaborators, has consulted with NS3 since the beginning. NS3’s permanent centre won’t be 136,000 square feet, but according to DeMattia, it will follow a similar model encouraging “hands-on fun, good energy, and active thinking.” NS3’s Science Studio, an interim science centre, is now in the works with support from Tourism Nanaimo.

Activities like this were what DeMattia treasured as a child. Unlike her sister, who thought it was “the grossest room ever,” she reveled in her sixth grade teacher’s “greatest, dirtiest classroom. When I went to college, I knew I was going to study science, and then I did a master’s in environmental management, and then a Ph.D in ecology. I just love it.”

DeMattia and her husband share a passion for the natural world with their young kids, who participate in NS3 programs whenever possible.

“We’re always out hiking in nature, in the tidal pools. That’s what we do for fun,” she says.

DeMattia is a mother, university instructor, and executive director of this long-term project. “There are always challenges,” she says, “but it’s not just me doing this. There’s a co-founder; we have a board of directors and a bunch of volunteers; we have staff to run the programs. Any time you’re working on projects that are meaningful, there’s always a reason to do it.
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