Mechanical Engineer Helps Launch a Regional Science Center

By: Devin Reese
September 22, 2019
Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes
Livermore science center visitor concept (Gyroscope Inc).
Our "Stories from the field" series shares the experiences of engineers and scientists who are making a difference in their communities.
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Monya Lane is the CEO of the Livermore Science & Society Center, a nonprofit dedicated to connecting people with science and technology. The group is in the planning phases of a science center to serve the students, families, and their communities of the California Tri-Valley area ─ the Amador, Livermore, and San Ramon Valleys. Monya retired from a 35-year career in mechanical engineering at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where, as the associate director for engineering, she led a 1600-person organization in their science and technology programs. Monya is also engaged with community arts, chairing the Livermore Commission for the Arts, which serves as an advisory group to the City Council about cultural spaces and activities.

DR: What inspired you to engage beyond research?

Lane: I retired, and was already part of my local community, thanks to living here during my 35-year research career. Even before I took my position with the Livermore Science & Society Center, some colleagues invited me to apply for the Livermore Commission to the Arts.

DR: What drew you to arts, and did that position make use of your engineering background?

Lane: It turns out that having a systems perspective is valuable in any community activity. My career at Lawrence Livermore Labs required a multidisciplinary team approach, which applies in other settings. As Chair of the Arts Commission, I was reminded by another retired colleague of the idea for a community science center that had surfaced a decade earlier. My response: “Of course we should have science center in Livermore!”

DR: Could you tell me about the Center?

Lane: It aims to be an informal learning hub that connects to and amplifies activities in our local STEM ecosystem of education and industry. We see that people want to understand what it means to live and work in our increasingly technological society and feel more engaged in the tech world. By relating science, tech, and engineering to our daily lives, we can help people become more familiar with “the extraordinary science of everyday life.” We want to build important life skills and encourage students to stay interested in science and technology.

DR: What are you aiming to bring to the community?

Lane: We are working to build a fully hands-on, interactive, regional science center. We believe that science centers need to offer a unique kind of experience going forward, incorporating new ways of learning about and understanding science and technology.   The Tri-Valley has a variety of strengths, such as life sciences, advanced manufacturing, computing, and agricultural technologies. We will focus on those, as well as other topics, drawing on the huge technical expertise in the region. We have a strong, representative Advisory Board, from Sandia National Labs, the Chabot Space & Science Center, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Institute for STEM Education, Las Positas Community College, University of California, Innovation Tri-Valley Leadership Group, etc. We benefit from the generation of ideas by the entrepreneurial technology culture of the Tri-Valley.

DR: How has the Livermore responded?

Lane: We’ve had a tremendously positive response. People from all walks of life would like to see it happen for various reasons. We are also doing pop-up exhibits and outreach activities now, and realizing that much of our mission will entail going outside of our walls, to reach people where they are.

People can satisfy their need for information on the internet, but a regional science center can offer an additional layer of community relevance. We want to help prepare people to participate civically. By providing an objective view of the science in the news, we hope to foster peoples’ comfort to engage in community dialogues about tech opportunities and other issues.

DR: The Center also aims to impact workforce development. How do you connect with the education system?

Lane: By contributing to building STEM capacity of those going through school here, as well as attracting new people to the Tri-Valley. We can help strengthen school science programs, plus provide an out-of-school learning environment for both youth and adults.

In fact, the idea for the Livermore Science Center was spawned in part from the small, 5th-grader Discovery Center at the Livermore National Lab. We wanted something larger that could serve middle schoolers plus adult family members and caretakers.

DR: How did your experiences working at the lab shape your vision for a regional science center?

Lane: Working at the National Lab, we were tasked with providing objective information that policymakers could use for making decisions at the national level. Our local residents should also have access to objective information to interpret the science they see in the news.

Although we’re not in our permanent science center space yet, our organization can still convene the community with expert speakers on challenging topics. For example, we can provide people with information that allows them to join the dialogue about how we manage local tech opportunities.

DR: What has made you successful in this new role?

Lane: I have been surprised at how my skills translate. My career at Lawrence Livermore included mechanical engineering, project management, and matrix management of people. Skills gained working on multidisciplinary teams ─ understanding who stakeholders are, and reaching out to appropriate people at appropriate times ─ are transferable.

The challenge, and the excitement, is identifying and reaching out to the stakeholders in the STEM community so that everyone has a voice going forward. We’ve made contact with all these folks in the Tri-Valley: school districts, colleges, occupational programs, libraries, park districts, area businesses, city economic development offices, chambers of commerce, technology companies, science museums, etc.

DR: How would you advise engineers and others about making change in their communities?

Lane: I would say: Realize how valuable the engineering perspective is for any system-wide problem. Your engineering skills will be value-added in community-oriented work. The crosscutting skills used in engineering projects are underappreciated when people are in the middle of their careers. The engineering approach to solving problems engages inquiry-based skills, experimentation, trial and error, interpreting results, and being comfortable with looking at data, all skills that are helpful in any part of everyday life.

DR: How have these new modes of participation changed your feelings about your role in the Livermore community?

Lane: It has been exciting to understand community needs and be part of coming up with solutions that can have a real impact on the lives of people in the region.

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Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 09/22/19
Updated: 09/14/22
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