Friday, May 23, 2008

Playing Around With Science: An Interview with Peter Rea

Peter Rea is the founder and president of Arbor Scientific, a company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan that imports, develops, and sells science education products and toys to teachers as well as the general public.

I first met Peter nearly twenty years ago at an MDSTA (Metro Detroit Science Teacher’s Association) meeting where he was demonstrating the Genecon hand-held generator from Japan. Since then, I’ve used many of Arbor Scientific’s products in museum programs and exhibits, so I thought readers of the ExhibiTricks blog might benefit from Peter’s take on science and science education.

Another great resource from Arbor Scientific of particular interest to museum folks is their CoolStuff Newsletter. You can view the CoolStuff Newsletter via the ArborSci website or subscribe via email. The Newsletter offers demo ideas, lesson plans, and free downloads of other fun science stuff. One of my favorite entries featured Anamorphic Art and other Optical Phenomena.

So after you enjoy my interview with Peter, check out the Arbor Scientific website and the CoolStuff Newsletter!

What’s your academic background?
I have a BA in Economics from Albion College and an MBA from the University of Michigan.

How did you start Arbor Scientific?
I started Arbor Scientific with a friend who had worked as a sales representative for one of the large science supply houses. He had discovered some very innovative products coming out of Japan that weren’t available in the US. These products, which included the Genecon and Magnetic Field Observation Box were an immediate success and started our reputation for having the “cool” science toys.

Were you a “science geek” as a kid?
I wouldn’t say that I was or am a “science geek”. I’m very inquisitive and have a real interest in how and why things work. My dad had a PhD in Engineering, but it was my older brother who became the physics teacher. My passion is for customer service --- which to me means finding the best new products and offering them at the best value to our customers. I’m fortunate to have met and established relationships with some of the best science teachers in the country. They’re a constant source of inspiration for new products and wanting to give teachers the tools that will help them do a better job.

What new products are you most excited about?
Two years ago we were the first company in the US to import and sell a model hydrogen fuel cell car kit that produced its own hydrogen. We’ve sold close to a thousand of them since, and are very excited about a new bioenergy product from the same company. In addition we will be carrying a laser viewing tank that was developed by science teacher in California that is very cool.

Do you handle particular products that you think would be useful for museums?
Many of our products are used in science museums, primarily in hands on demonstrations and outreach programs. The Genecon and Visual Electricity Demonstrator have been very popular, as well as the Hand Crank Van De Graaff Generator.

What trends in science products do you see coming down the road?
I don’t think we will see very much change in the products themselves. The change will come in how teachers learn how to use the products. Although we have for years provided curriculum ideas along with our products, the web allows us to use video to show them how to best use our products. We are in the process of producing video clips that will teach the teachers how to use these products.

What can a parent do to encourage a child’s interest in science?
Visit science museums, buy science related toys, and most importantly encourage their involvement in science classes, especially as they get older.

What’s you favorite museum?
The Exploratorium in San Francisco is my favorite, and we have a great hands-on museum here in Ann Arbor.

What’s your favorite science-related experience?
I chaperoned a group of high school physics students to an amusement park for “Physics Day” It was great to see the enthusiasm displayed in completing their assignments. It also gave me a greater appreciation of the creativity teachers express in teaching their students.

Was there ever a product you were sure would be a hit that never (or hasn’t yet) taken off?
I’m fortunate to have a brother who is an award winning physics teacher. Many ideas for new products have come from him. A number of years ago he suggested we sell a product for teaching projectile motion that he had obtained at a physics teachers meeting but was no longer being sold. After a couple of years of pushing this idea, I capitulated and introduced it in our catalog. The Air Powered Projectile quickly became one of our best selling products.

Thanks again to Peter for his candor and insights!

You can find out more about Arbor Scientific by visiting their website.

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