NoCo Science Education Blog: Follow Your Passion and Build a Dream with Dee and Mark Wanger

By Victoria Jordan

Dee and Mark Wanger at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery

“Mommy! Come and check this out!” Squeals of delight surround me as I walk into a magical place where generations explore together. Toddlers crawl through an underground maze, poking their heads up into the railyard filled with Thomas the Tank trains. A grandmother helps a child build a satellite while exploring earth and space transportation.


A youngster shoots a spray of water in an interactive display, trying to hit a target while learning hydraulics.


A mother plays a piano while her son beats a rhythm on a drum set.


A college class hopes a live ferret will peek out of a prairie dog tunnel exhibit while listening to a biologist explain how techniques developed locally to save black-footed ferrets are now helping rhinos and other endangered species. Where is this place that brings people of all ages together to explore science, art, and history? And, how did this magical place come to be? Meet the inspiration for the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, Dee Wanger and her supportive spouse, Mark.


Build It and They Will Come

How did this tree of learning grow? Dee Wanger planted the seed in the 1980s. When Dee visited the Children’s Museum in Houston she was inspired to create a place in Northern Colorado that would bring people together to explore science with hands-on, engaging exhibits. Friends told Dee, “If you start a children’s museum, I will serve as a volunteer.” Since the internet had not yet been born, Dee looked in the yellow pages for examples of hands-on museums to find stories of how to begin and to find a formula, which did not exist. People she spoke to told her to, “Go with what your community will support.” Dee and a group of volunteers designed some transportable exhibits and took them to the 4th of July celebration and the first New West Fest, and generated excitement for the idea. The University Mall donated space in an empty store as a draw for customers. Mark joined the Exhibits Committee and helped to design and build exhibits. A slew of volunteers gave time, expertise and resources, and the Discovery Center was born.

Dee Wanger sends balls down ramps to explore acceleration due to gravity in an exhibit that has lasted through every iteration of the Discovery Center.

Partnerships Are Important

As the excitement for a science museum grew, so did the collaborations. “The atmosphere throughout the nation in the 1990’s really supported science and community engagement in a non-competitive manner,” Dee says. Over 200 museums started in every State during this time, and people at the Exploratorium in San Francisco and other places shared their professional exhibits with each other to help expand what the local volunteers had already created. Poudre School District donated space at Barton Elementary, Hewlett Packard and Advanced Energy had volunteers serve on the Board of Directors, donated matching grants, and encouraged employees to help create exhibits. “The community clearly wanted access to great things!” Once the snowball started to roll, it became a “feather in your cap” to be involved, and the momentum brought in leaders, businesses, scouts and schools. “So many people were willing to be worker bees that the talent pool of grassroots volunteers was astounding!” Dee says. “One of the partnerships was with a designer of professional exhibits, and that was when our impact exploded. Things like color and placement of objects and creating themes turned us into a truly professional museum.”

One theme fully developed is music. As people explore the science, art, and history of music they come to realize it is more than the sum of its parts.

Another theme is the history of agriculture in the Fort Collins area.


Growing Pains

“As the tree grew, we hired arborists to shape it,” Dee explains. Professionals and staff were hired to create, care for, and manage the exhibits. Mark shifted some of his energy to an electric bike trailer project, and Dee stepped back some to manage health concerns. But, they couldn’t stay away for long. “There has been a Wanger on the Board for at least 14 years!” Mark says. Dee returned to manage the astronomy Star Lab program. She also tried to create a kit check out program. “Some of the things we tried were unsustainable,” Dee says. Mark adds, “If you don’t succeed, don’t quit; just shift!” Many exhibits had false starts, but some of the ideas from the early days still exist in the museum to this day.

Natural history has always been featured. The exhibit has grown exponentially with expertise from partners and volunteers.

One of A Kind

In an unprecedented move, the Fort Collins History Museum and the Discovery Center merged to become the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery in 2012. There was city support for the infrastructure as well as a non-profit corporation to receive grants and donations. Companies can support an exhibit to boost their prestige and give back to the community, and there is a stable foundation for operations with a tax base. “The new building opened on my daughter’s birthday,” Dee says, “and she got married in the new FCMoD!”


Traveling exhibits like this one on energy and the environment are paid for by donations from local companies. People of all ages are fully engaged in the exhibits.


Follow Your Passion

“I didn’t feel encouraged to pursue science or math as a girl,” Dee says. “One of my teachers told me to consider studying chemistry, and another told me to look into ophthalmology. But I didn’t believe science was accessible to me. I wanted my daughters to have fun with science, and to see that it was accessible to them if they desired a career in science.”

Girls of all ages can see themselves becoming scientists by exploring in the museum.

Mark adds, “Asking ‘I wonder’ at the dinner table led to so many exploratory conversations, it inspired us to do little things. All the little things added up to bigger things. The little things gave us confidence to keep trying.” Dee chimes in, “The dream comes out of the process. We followed our passions in the moment, kept shifting, and ended up creating many, many dreams.” Truly, the Wanger partnership continues to impact our community.

Have you ever had one of those lightbulb moments? A good idea can become a great idea in a flash! Every day offers a new opportunity to rethink the future. And, tomorrow is up to YOU.


NoCo Science Education Blog: Decades of Discovery – Explorations with Dr. Stephen Thompson

By Victoria Jordan

Dr. Stephen Thompson in his anthocyanin garden.

Dr. Stephen Thompson, Explorer

Microtornadoes, microstalagtites, and microhurricanes are beautiful 3-dimensional gaseous structures created by chemical reactions in Dr. Stephen Thompson’s laboratory. In order to facilitate his explorations of molecular fields, Dr. Thompson built microscopes himself that include high resolution video with fiber optic connectors and various lasers to study chemical reactions on the fly as they take place.


Dr. Thompson conducts an experiment in his lab, studying chemical reactions by observing them microscopically as they happen.

He is exploring anthocyanins (colorful plant pigments) using spectroscopy and chromatography to find mathematical patterns. He is conducting microfluidic electrophoresis of anthocyanins by taping sewing pins onto a microscope slide so he can watch and film the process as it happens under the microscope.

Innovation is the key to Small Scale Chemistry. Thompson creates his own equipment and encourages his students and teachers to avoid “black box technologies” and create equipment that they can build, understand, and fix.

Dr. Thompson is using capillary tubes to view aerosols for experiments with colored lasers, transferring large scale experiments to small scale where the observations can take place on a molecular level. His passion for exploration is never-ending.

Small Scale Chemistry

Dr. Thompson is best known for his groundbreaking development of Small-Scale Chemistry to promote student-centered inquiry in college level chemistry classes. In the 1990’s, he co-wrote a grant to create the Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education (CSMATE) at Colorado State University, and helped to design a modern college experiential studio where he utilized Small Scale Chemistry methodologies that encouraged students to learn science by doing science. Thompson shared his educational philosophy through the lens of Small-Scale Chemistry to K-16 public school teachers by offering numerous professional development courses funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and others.  The collaborative partnerships’ that Thompson nurtured with public school teachers helped to transform the way an entire generation of science teachers and their students experienced learning and exploring science.

Tim Lenczycki, a high school chemistry teacher, is one of many teachers that have adopted small scale practices. Tim says, “Dr. Thompson is not only a spell-binding lecturer, but his expertise as an educator really shines one-on-one.  He truly finds importance in student opinions and honestly values their insights.  He empowers students in their own knowledge and skillfully leads them to higher levels of understanding.  I have not met a person who is more well-read than Steve Thomson.  Coupled with his vastly varied other pursuits, he is an authentic renaissance man.”

Dr. Thompson teaches the chemistry of climate change to a group of teachers.

Dr. Thompson attempted to influence University science education away from the business model where hundreds of students can be packed into a lecture hall to more of an experiential model in which students could scientifically explore natural patterns with guidance from the instructor.  In Thompson’s model the teacher takes on the role of mentor, thus learning becomes a partnership with his students.  His college text, ChemTrek, has been translated into several languages, and is used extensively in Asia. Thompson has carried out workshops in Korea, Japan and Thailand to broadcast small scale approaches across the globe.

A group of Korean teachers learns Small-Scale methodologies.

The value of Thompson’s Small-Scale Chemistry methodologies are even embraced by schools that have not had the opportunity to learn his student-centered pedagogy.  “Asian schools doing chemistry who were using traditional methods of teaching were generating large amounts of hazardous waste, and they adopted Small Scale Chemistry in order to solve some environmental problems they were having with hazardous waste management in schools and universities. It also happens to save millions of dollars,” Steve says. Small Scale Chemistry allows every student to design and carry out their own experiments using multiple iterations, partly because there is little waste and a huge cost savings. Additionally, Small Scale Chemistry is much safer than traditional chemistry labs that use large glassware and high volumes of potentially dangerous chemicals. Dr. Thompson earned recognition for eliminating accidents in the lab during his tenure at CSU.

Small Scale techniques use fewer chemicals, and create safer working conditions.

Every teacher who has gone through one of Steve’s trainings takes away the importance of student exploration and engagement. A Thompson lesson typically starts with introducing students to a natural phenomenon, which is followed by guided exploration and finally open inquiry.  This process nurtures a student’s ability to discover natural patterns by asking questions and designing experiments.  The hands-on approach also encourages students to think critically about what they claim as knowledge.  “How do you know that?” is one of Steve’s mantras. Getting students to think, to ask questions, and to try to find answers is his forte. “Small scale isn’t just about reducing the size of the experiment. It’s about how teachers and students approach the learning.”

On the Shoulders of Giants

Dr. Thompson surrounds himself with inspiration, and has a very extensive private scientific library. “I am a student of the history and philosophy of science,” he says. “I have every book written on the history of laboratories, and I have an incredible collection of books regarding women in science, astronomy, biology and chemistry. Scientists are people with stories, and I want to know who these people were.” For example, a German scientist, Rafael Liesegang, wrote a paper in 1896 about diffusion gels. Thousands of people reference this work, but very few have ever studied it directly. During the Covid lockdown, Steve translated all 53 pages from the original German to English.  Thompson and colleague Dr. Patrick Shipman are extending Liesegang’s work and developing mathematical models for the pattern systems from that original work.

Pattern systems in diffusion gels published by Thompson and Shipman in the Journal of Chemical Physics.

When Steve looked at the literature from the 1890’s regarding the chemistry of anthocyanin pigments, he analyzed the works of 2 Nobel scientists: British organic chemist, Sir Robert Robinson and a German chemist, Richard Willstatter. Steve found that Willstatter grew flowers by the acre in Berlin and extracted the anthocyanins to analyze their structure. Steve is exploring the concept that anthocyanin associations influence flower color, odor and pollination ecology, and has assisted graduate students including Dr. Wei Yu who recently completed a thesis project on this topic. Steve has taken all the data he can find in the literature, plus his own data, and is coming up with new conclusions and new experiments.

Meticulous measurements, calculations, and literature reviews spark new ideas and creative experiments.

Steve’s work on teaching the chemistry of climate change has been inspired by his favorite chemist, John Tyndall. In an 1880’s book Heat: A Mode of Motion, Tyndall explored climate change by examining the transmission of energy in the form of heat. Steve has taken Tyndall’s original experiments and is translating them to a small-scale version using micro-encapsulated liquid crystal mylar systems to model and explore energy transfer.

Dr. Thompson is never alone in his lab. He always brings scientists past and present into his work. Currently he is working with 2 graduate students as they complete research projects. One is examining the fundamental chemistry of why sinkholes are forming in Horsetooth Reservoir. The other is exploring anthocyanins as phytophoto protection for newly forming organelles in plants. Dr. Thompson loves being a researcher and a teacher, and has no plans to stop doing either.

Anthocycanin pigments are extracted from flowers in Thompson’s garden for use in his experiments.

From Then to Now

Born in a small mining town in northern England, Dr. Thompson earned his PhD from the University of Birmingham, England. From there, he dropped out of academia to grow bananas and play tennis on St. Vincent in the West Indies. When he decided to re-enter society, he came to America on a post-doc fellowship to the University of Arizona in Tuscon, and then became an Assistant Professor at the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland. When a professor at Colorado State University saw him eating fire at a demonstration in 1969, he reached out and said, “I think you would be a great teacher in our freshman courses,” and Steve never looked back.

Dr. Stephen Thompson eats fire as a demonstration for a class in 1995.

Dr. Thompson claims his methods are not special. “If you want to find out what’s going on, you have to start with what you know. All we do in science is take something we don’t know anything about and put it next to something we know something about and find the similarity.

The history of science is really the history of containers,” he claims. When he first started teaching chemistry at CSU, everyone was using large amounts of chemicals in large containers to prove a concept. “Now that we are working on the molecular level to explain and prove concepts, we can use very small amounts of materials in very small containers. Take a drop of water. In that drop, there are billions of molecules to study!” Steve exclaims.

A group of teachers studies chemistry one drop at a time.

True to his nature, Thompson studied another English scientist, Michael Faraday. Faraday viewed chemical reactions as molecular fields in the early 1800’s. Small Scale Chemistry came out of the methodologies Faraday used as an experimenter, and Steve’s perusal of Faraday’s notebooks helped him create his methods. A S3TAR was born. The S3TAR (Small Scale Science- Teachers As Researchers) program brought together middle and high school science teachers to learn Small Scale methodologies in summer programs, and those teachers went on to train their departments, influencing an entire generation of science teachers.

Chromatography experiments were part of the S3TAR experience.

The Future

Smart Scale Sustainable Science and Mathematics (S4M) is Steve’s latest iteration of how he would like to see science and math taught in schools. “The walls that separate the traditional sciences are beginning to crumble. The compartmentalization of the disciplines needs to go away, and mathematics, the language of science, is the thread that ties them all together.”

The pandemic brought to light all the failings of the educational system, and Thompson is currently researching better ways to get students to learn, to explore, and to embrace science and math. “The fundamental problem is that most classrooms are lecture-based. We need to infuse phenomena and exploration into every lesson. Experimental work is disappearing in classrooms, and I am hopeful that S4M can do away with lecture and provide ways for 100% of the students to engage in explorations of their world 100% of the time.” He is working on a book with the working title of Existential Education. In his 60 years of investigating chemistry and 40 years in education, Steve has continued to grow, explore and learn while inspiring teachers and students to do the same.

Stay tuned, as Dr. Stephen Thompson’s Opus has yet to be concluded.

See more of Dr. Thompson’s work at these links:

Small-Scale Chemistry Webpage

Thompson and Shipman’s paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics on the counterdiffusion of HCl and NH3


The Synergy of Art and Science with Gary Raham

The Synergy of Art and Science with Gary Raham

By Victoria Jordan


Gary Raham hosts a naturalist workshop at Reservoir Ridge Natural Area.

Your inner artist wants to meet your inner scientist. Won’t you invite them to come out and play?



Scientists who understand the synergy of art and science tend to be more imaginative and creative in thinking about solutions to tasks and world problems. The Apollo moon missions were inspired by science fiction writers dreaming about space travel. HG Wells’ aliens in the War of the Worlds were defeated not by human military forces, but by bacterial infections that wiped them out; a pandemic scientist’s nightmare. Scientists are often drawn to their fields by the creative wonder of science fiction or an inspirational piece of art that is based, in part, on science fact. Gary Raham is a master of both.



Gary Raham, a Northern Colorado artist/scientist/author, has been gifting his skills to our community for decades. Gary writes both science fiction and non-fiction, illustrating both with remarkable images that spark imagination and curiosity. You can find a number of his works on his website ( He leads trips and hosts workshops as a Master Naturalist with Larimer County, and encourages participants to engage all of their senses when observing nature. Gary suggests keeping a naturalist’s notebook to awaken and nurture your inner artist.


Focus on shapes, sizes, and proportions if you are looking for a way to get started. Make notes on your field sketches to help you remember details later.

Don’t be afraid to make drawings that are not perfect renditions of what you see. Start somewhere! The important thing is to pay attention to the details. Does that flower have 4, 5, or 6 petals? Do the stamens rise above the petals, or are they below the pistil? You don’t have to be able to name something in order to sketch it. Did that beetle rise vertically off of the ground, or did it take off parallel to the ground? What did the beetle sound like as it flew away? Notice the behaviors and jot them down. What odors are present on the forest floor? How does that odor differ from the algae in the creek? If your notebook is full of these sensory details, when you read your journal years from now your memory will be enhanced, helping to transport you back to that place and time.



Another way to rouse your inner artist is to think about your surroundings in powers of ten. Focus on something, and then change your perspective by factors of ten (x10 or x10-1). For example, if you are examining a rock, by shifting your focus x10, you will bring your eye up to the landscape. You may then notice that you can see tilted layers in the hogback in the distance. Conversely, if you see some bright yellow splashes on a log, concentrate on the world at 1/10th your size (10-1), and you may notice sporocarps on a slime mold.


Gary’s rendition of a slime mold emitting spores when he shifted his focus to 10^-1.

By altering your perspective, you can offer a new perspective to your work and to the way you are thinking about your projects. This can inspire creative ideas and refresh your own curiosity.



Scientists who ask, “What if?” questions also increase their creativity and curiosity. This is another way to engage your inner artist. Gary wrote a science fiction trilogy where he asked, “What if an asteroid impact destroyed human civilization?” In his books, humans were set back to nearly stone age technology, paving the way for an alien race to move in and make humans their pets. By staying true to the scientifically verified facts, his aliens and the new world are both believable and fun. His illustrations make it all come to life. You don’t have to write a science fiction novel in order to be inspired into new ways of thinking by “What if?” questions in your field.


The Mother Tree Forest in Gary Raham’s novel: A Twice-Dead Genius Comporting with Misunderstood Abominations

In another illustrated science fiction novel, The Deep Time Diaries, Gary transports a family back to prehistoric times. As the family uses the time machine to jump between the Cenozoic, Mesozoic, and Paleozoic eras, they explore the very real prehistoric plant and animal communities in each time period.


“Gimp,” a lame saber toothed cat hangs out near the LaBrea tar pits in the Deep Time Diaries.


The Cambrian predator, Anomalocaris, pursues a trilobite in the Deep Time Diaries.

Middle school classrooms around the country have used this novel to study geologic time and the evolution of life while creating opportunities for students to collaborate across the disciplines of science, English, and art. This collaboration has been one of Gary’s most influential methods of motivating future scientists as well as scientific illustrators.



Scientists and students do not need to fear the inclusion of art in their work. By merging art and science, innovation is often the result. What can you do to increase the “A” in STEAM?


  • Know what to look for. Each discipline has different details. Become well versed in the details of your discipline, and then really look to see specifics.
  • Make detailed drawings, even if you are uncomfortable doing so.
  • Practice makes perfect. Draw something every day.
  • Sign up for one of Gary’s workshops through the Larimer County, Colorado Master Naturalist program. (
  • Check out the STEAM kits from our lending library at the EOC. ( Every kit includes a journaling expectation, offering opportunities for students in grades 6-12 to practice not only the scientific process with data collection and analysis, but also sketching experiments and scientific samples.