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Mindy Porter: Fostering fun and learning at the Amazeum

Mindy Porter loves paving the way for children of all ages to explore and question the world through hands-on science.

That’s one reason she’s a natural at being education director for the Scott Family Amazeum. Porter was one of the first people hired by the children’s museum in Bentonville, and so had a huge hand in forming it from the start.

“When I moved out here with the incredible opportunity to create the Amazeum, I thought about educators that impressed me across the country,” says Sam Dean, executive director of the Amazeum, who brought Porter on board eight years ago. “Mindy was at the top of the list for someone who could come in and build something deep and meaningful in the sciences from scratch. (She) is really good at growing a team and professionally developing them in their areas of practice.

“Clearly, she could help build this place rich in science to the top tier.”

Her first task was to find out what educational support the region could use and shape what the overall experience would be at the children’s museum.

“We had a basic idea of exhibits, but a lot of the other details weren’t filled in yet,” Porter says. “My major task was to figure out … how would we connect with the community and support the educational landscape of Northwest Arkansas?”

To Porter, it was like being handed a blank slate. She had ideas of her own, but first she did a lot of surveying.

She visited other museums and public libraries and spent hours in conversation with their staff members to see what was largely available — and what wasn’t. She engaged with people in the community through listening sessions, some with local teachers, superintendents and school administrators, as well as children’s groups — Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts and really anyone who wanted a say in filling in an educational gap.

Porter wanted the Amazeum to be an authentic and relevant place for Northwest Arkansas by finding its particular niche. What she heard in all those talks was that the area needed places for families to “come together and be active, be curious and explore together.”

Over and over, she heard that the arts were well covered here. Literacy, too. And environmental education was available.

“But there was not a lot that allowed you to interact with each other, be physically active, play together,” Porter says. “From the educational side, I heard that they needed more hands-on science. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for people to have experiences within those curriculum areas … that it was really lacking.”

Dean says Porter was integral in forming the philosophy and pedagogy of the Amazeum. In her tenure, she has developed STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) centered camps and workshop series for young girls in sciences and, before the covid pandemic changed their capacity numbers, Porter was coordinating “unfield trips,” the name for nontraditional field trips at the Amazeum, for between 250,000 and 260,000 school children each year. As covid changed the outlook of museum interaction, Porter created an at-home program, Amazeum You, to allow guests to continue to have fun learning and experimenting with the help of Amazeum staff.

But Porter’s impact goes well beyond the average exhibit, camp or workshop. Among her greatest accomplishments is the creation of what Dean calls one of the best teacher development programs in the state, which focuses on maker- and science-based education.

“I know that when I attend a professional development event at the Amazeum, Mindy’s team is going to prepare a professional, well thought out, hands-on, entertaining, educational experience,” says Shelly O’Dell, Porter’s friend and a music teacher at the Thaden School. “When I was planning out a music exploration/tinkering summer camp last year, I knew I could call on Mindy to help me think through my ideas, the supplies needed and the structure of the camp. Mindy’s passion for maker education to be spread is contagious.”

Porter’s strength as a leader, Dean says, is to facilitate learning in a natural and fun way.

“She built an amazing engine of a team and trained them not to get in the way of friends and families learning, but to compliment it,” Dean says.

WHY OR WHY NOT

Porter describes herself as someone passionate about people of all ages having the chance to expand their worldview through questioning and landing on a better understanding of the world around them. She comes by that love naturally, since she has always been extremely curious.

Her parents, both teachers of middle school science, fostered that curiosity from the beginning. They encouraged her to explore outdoors, and the countryside and woods around St. Joseph, Mo., had plenty to offer. She often spent after-school hours riding bikes, climbing trees and hopping fences.

“She was a challenging child, not in a negative way, but she was very energetic … very adventuresome. She kept me on my toes,” says Marcia Porter, Mindy’s mother. “She was full of questions, and nothing was ever taken at face value. It was always ‘Why?’ or ‘Why not?'”

Marcia Porter says young Mindy had an insatiable thirst for learning how things worked. Whether they were gardening, cooking or her dad was working on a project, she was right there with questions about the equipment or how to do what they were doing. They kept her busy with a menagerie full of fire belly newts, cats, dogs, turtles, hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits.

“The only way to get her to read was to let her climb up the tree and then hand her a book,” Marcia Porter says. Eventually they rigged a bucket on a rope for that very purpose.

When Marcia worked on middle school science curriculum for the district, back when hands-on science was emerging, she would try out the activities with Mindy. Not only did she get to have some classic early science fun, like learning about density layers with the egg-in-a-bottle experiment, she got to see much more of the scientific process as her mom changed various aspects to make the project more translatable on a wider level.

She didn’t know it then, but that would be a major tenet of her work as an adult.

Meanwhile, her father’s class ran ongoing science experiments on the effects of healthy versus non-healthy diets on rats. The students would track what they were feeding the classroom animals, measure their length, weight, make notes about behavior, and once the project concluded, he would bring the rats home for Mindy to nurse back to health before finding them a new home.

Science resonated with Porter at school, too. She’ll never forget making a roller coaster of tubes, cardboard, balls and tape with Mrs. Lions, a student teacher for the fifth grade. That intersection of learning while having fun stuck with her to this day.

As a kid, Mindy wanted to be many things, including a marine biologist — but it proved difficult to really start studying early on in a landlocked state — a veterinarian, of course, and a park ranger following many family vacations to state parks all over the country. At Mesa Verde, the famous cliff dwellings in arid New Mexico, Marcia Porter recalls her optimistic little scientist planting an apple seed.

FINDING A WAY INTO MUSEUMS

If there’s any down side to curiosity, it might be that it can make it difficult to narrow focus. Porter was interested in so many things that as she approached college, she found it difficult to settle on what she might want to do for a living.

One of Mindy’s high school summer gigs was working with a group of underprivileged middle school students in an enrichment program, where her job was to take them on field trips that would expand their knowledge. In college, she took high school students to Australia for a month long service project, where they provided free meals, kid clubs and light construction services for the Aboriginal communities. She did a similar project with tribes in Kenya and after college graduation participated in service projects in the Honduras.

“I knew I liked being around people and that I liked the idea of change, to have a new and different sense of adventure,” Mindy Porter says. Travel and being in the service field offered that for her.

“I knew that a formal education pathway didn’t feel like the right fit, but I really liked science and working with kids, helping other people be curious, asking questions to understand the world around them, not just accepting things at face value, not just ‘that’s the way it is,’ to make change and have an empowerment piece first.”

Porter started with this knowledge and the confidence that she didn’t want to be a teacher or professor, and then chose agriculture as a degree focus — but changed directions a few more times through her college years. In the end, she earned a degree in biology with a minor in religious studies from Missouri State University, but she still wasn’t certain what it meant career wise.

She was volunteering a few hours a week at the Discovery Center of Springfield when a position became available.

“I thought ‘What?! No one told me that they don’t run just on volunteers,'” Porter says. She applied and got the job of creating a museum outreach program for third graders throughout Springfield in 2002. She would bring hands-on science experiments to students and work with teachers on raising content knowledge and ultimately those standardized testing scores.

That’s where all the pieces of the puzzle clicked together, she says. “This is what I was looking for; it’s a perfect fit.”

DISCOVERING HER PATH

During her six years at the Discovery Center, Porter came to understand all the working parts of a museum when they went through a major renovation and alternately shut down each part at various times. She started traveling to other museums and began to understand the field in a broader sense. Among the most influential of those was getting to sit in on team meetings and seeing behind the scenes at the Exploratorium of San Francisco, where Sam Dean was working at the time.

The first trip she made was only three or four days, but it changed her outlook on what education and science exploration could be.

“I came back with a ‘Now I get it’ feeling about the depth of impact and how museums play an essential role in the learning of a community,” Porter says. “It’s so much more than a fun place to come whenever you have some free time.”

That’s when she realized she didn’t just have a fun job, she had a career that she wanted to invest more time in, grow her skills and connections and become a leader.

Porter’s first big shot at leadership came when she was hired as director of informal learning for Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs. It came with the responsibility of turning the tourism destination into more of an educational one, which would take reenvisioning programming and refreshing the culture of the museum’s staff.

“We were initially very tourist-oriented, and now more educationally oriented, and I could see that start with Mindy, that seed she planted,” says Noreen Killen, chief operating officer at Mid-America Science Museum. “It’s grown so much from that.”

At the time, Killen was brand new to Arkansas and she hadn’t worked in a museum before, so Porter was a bit of a guide at first due to her welcoming personality that made her feel safe to ask questions. It was clear that she knew Mid-America inside out.

“Mindy is so passionate about education, and her leadership skills really shine,” Killen says. “I don’t think it’s just for her own team, it’s for everyone around her. She’s very generous with her knowledge and sharing it and being willing to help.”

Killen saw those leadership skills at play many times, working to inspire young people and educators, sometimes at work and sometimes outside of it. For her son’s sixth birthday, Killen says, Porter acquired a cow eye so they could dissect it together, and it became a huge highlight of his young life. At times her son would ask her question after question, and Porter always answered each one while never seeming tired or bored.

At work, Killen saw Porter mentor and teach a young woman who’s now returned to Mid-America as the director of education there. She still sees Mindy’s influence on her in the way that she works.

“Mindy’s integrity, honesty and selfless nature is pretty much unmatched by anyone else I know,” Killen says. “People can feel that. She has a clear vision of what she wants … and makes it happen. She does it through kindness and hard work and courageousness. She’s not afraid to push ahead.”

EVERY DAY AMAZING

When Porter heard that one of her mentors, Sam Dean, would be at the helm of opening the Amazeum, working along with her buddy Erik Smith, she knew it had to be something special that was coming.

The project of transforming Mid-America wasn’t completed, but Porter had queued them up, leaving them in a good place as she accepted the director of education position and headed to Northwest Arkansas.

She takes pride in the Amazeum being a place where there’s something for everyone.

“It’s not seen as just for kids or 6-year-olds, there’s something for a teen or an adult to be intrigued by, to be curious about, to want to explore further,” Porter says. “We wanted it to be a place where you can feel and are safe … where you can let your guard down, can be silly, playful, take some emotional risks and tap back into the playful side of yourself that maybe you lost touch with.”

Erik Smith, the former founding director of exhibits and facilities for the Amazeum, met Porter at a museum event in Little Rock and recognized her skills as a gifted educator and leader right away. He says the Amazeum would not be the place it is today without her passion and dedication to providing the best experience possible for museum guests.

“The experience on the museum floor today is a direct result of the caring leadership that Mindy provides her team,” Smith says. Not only does she manage people exceptionally well, she plans complex initiatives from inception to execution down to the last detail.

“Mindy is that rare leader, who has figured out the formula for being an effective and compassionate leader that a team is willing to trust and follow into uncharted territory,” Smith says.

The beginning of the covid pandemic was one of those moments. As the Amazeum temporarily closed, Porter was in constant talks, seeking guidance from healthcare professionals and national museum associations on which exhibits to keep open and which to close, advice for how to change hours and cleaning practices as well as creating policies around mask wearing.

The result was lowering museum capacity, moving supplies into kits for less contact between families and delineating the physical space required for social distancing on the museum floor, among others.

Looking back, Porter is proud of how her team has handled it so far.

“We supported each other well, collaborated and could have tough conversations, wrestle with things in a respectful way,” she says. “We were vulnerable and felt the weight of our guests and teams’ safety. To help each other emotionally handle that was a gift.”

    Mindy Porter, director of education at the Scott Family Amazeum. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)
 
 

Self Portrait

Mindy Renee Porter

Date and place of birth: Sept. 8, 1980, St. Joseph, Mo.

Some of my favorite “Mindyisms”: “Let’s see if there’s some there, there” “Etch-a-sketch your brain” and “Unpack that more for me, tell me more about it.”

If I won the lottery, the first thing I would buy is: travel arrangements to knock off all my bucket list travel items.

The question people ask me the most is: “Do you have a minute to help me figure out how to navigate this situation?”

The last show I binged on television was: “Schitt’s Creek” (for the 10th time.)

I know I’ve done a good job when: I see that “aha” look on someone’s face.

The thing that makes me laugh the most is: a well-timed, unexpected and quick-witted comment or situation.

Something I think everyone should try at least once is: sponsoring a child through Compassion International. I love my sponsor kids! I’ve been sponsoring (writing letters to develop a relationship; providing financial support for education, clothing and basic needs) since 1999. My first was Maria from Brazil, who I visited in person twice. I currently sponsor four, three from Brazil, one from Columbia.

When I have an hour of free time, I spend it: outdoors exploring nature. I take hikes with my pug, Morgan, in parks and on trails. Some of my favorites are Sinking Stream and the Van Winkle trails at Hobbs State Park. For bigger hikes, I enjoy Hawksbill Crag and the Yellow Rock Trail at Devil’s Den.

A new hobby I’m exploring is: learning how to throw pottery. I’m in a class for beginners and it’s fascinating how the clay responds to subtle changes of your hand positions and varied amounts of pressure. I have to be fully present and focus only on the clay, which is quite relaxing.

Three words that others might use to describe me are: passionate, caring, loyal.