Thinkery Volunteer Spotlight: Dr. Phil


Each month the Thinkery blog highlights one of our amazing volunteers and their fantastic work at the Thinkery. This month we feature Dr. Phil, who has contributed to the museum in tremendous ways. He’s volunteered his time training Thinkery staff members on a number of great STEAM projects, most recently teaching staff how to build a geodesic dome. Thanks Dr. Phil for all your amazing work!

Name: Phil Schmidt  (AKA Dr. Phil)

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Dr. Phil and the Engineering Saturdays students at Austin Children’s Museum

How long have you been volunteering at the Thinkery?
I started working with the Austin Children’s Museum science education staff in 2006, supervising teams designing interactive exhibits and activities to promote interest in science and engineering. In collaboration with the late Becky Jones, then the Education Director, I founded the Engineering Saturdays Program, where UT engineering students led hands-on projects with visitors. I also served on the Board of ACM from 2008-2010 I fully retired in June 2013 and am now renewing my active involvement in collaboration with Thinkery staff members.

Geodome Training with Dr. Phil!

Why did you want to volunteer at the Thinkery?
I believe that what children experience in early childhood forms the foundation for their entire lives; there is no more important service that one can render to our society than to contribute to that experience.  The Thinkery is the ideal place for children (and adults) to explore science,  technology, and the arts in a totally free and fun environment, encouraged and guided by a wonderful professional staff.

What is your favorite exhibit/program and why?
My personal favorite area is the Innovators’ Workshop. It’s the natural “home base” for a person with my background and interests, and the kind of place that I most enjoy working with children.

What have been your best moments at the museum?
I’ve had many great moments at ACM and Thinkery, but the best have been during Engineering Saturdays, watching the mutual joy of achievement reflected on the faces of children who have built something they are proud of and the UT engineering student mentors who have guided them.

Geodome testing at Austin Children's Museum
Geodome testing at Austin Children’s Museum

What is the best story you have about working with visitors?
During one of our Engineering Saturday programs, a grandmother of my own vintage brought her grandson, who became so totally engrossed in building wind-powered cars with the UT mechanical engineering students that he spent the entire morning at it, to the exclusion of everything else in the museum. At the end of the morning, she introduced herself to me—turns out she was the wife of the acting Chancellor of the University of Texas System. On Monday morning I received an email from her husband saying that his grandson had talked his ear off all weekend about wind-powered cars and that he was sure we had created an engineer-in-training.

How has work at ACM/Thinkery influenced your life?
Working with staff and children at the Thinkery has motivated me to study and learn more about child development and given me a great appreciation for the insights and skills of those work in this field professionally. Young children are building knowledge at an astounding rate and are a very diverse group, intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Dealing with this diversity and providing the best possible experience for every child is a great challenge, one that I find very rewarding.

What is something in your life that you love, and what is your favorite thing to do in my time off?
My wife Donna and our family are the loves of my life and our grandchildren are the jewels of that family. Nothing brings me more joy than spending time with them, and especially sharing the excitement of discovering new things. Donna and I have grandchildren in Denver and Dallas, and now that I’m retired, we spend about half of our time in those two places. (We have burned enough rubber on I-35 to buy stock in a tire company.)

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