Sarah Holbrooke Takes the Helm at Pinhead

05/08/14 | By | More

TELLURIDE – With a new executive director, senior program director and interim program director, and a new website ready to launch, the Pinhead Institute is entering a new era.

“It’s Pinhead on steroids!” exclaimed Executive Director Sarah Holbrooke, who ticks off a few more offerings new this year, in addition to the organization’s ever-popular winter astronomy series, Scholars in the School (who visit every grade in the Telluride R-1 School District) and elementary-school Jitterbugs programs and summer science talks, Punk Science exhibitions and summer camps.

This summer, Pinhead offers four camps out of its Coonskin Lift headquarters (Bug Camp, ages 11 – 13; Rockin’ Robots Lego League, ages 8-plus; Bridges, TBA,  and Computer Coding, TBA), and four more camps – Drones, Blast Off!, Boom! and Mad Scientists – through Telluride Academy.

On the staffing front, part-time Program Director Chris Anderson, an early Pinhead intern who now holds a B.S. in evolutionary biology from Harvard College, will head up Bug Camp, complete with nighttime forays and regular visits to the San Miguel River, for kids ages 11 – 13.  Senior Program Director Stacy Klotka’s background as a working chemist comes in helpful, when it comes to “making sure all our hydrogen peroxide and bleach is safely stored, ” as well as when it comes to planning summer camp workshops with titles like Boom! Events and Marketing Director Jennifer Mueffelmann is working on the organization’s website as well as organizing a June 28 fundraiser, in the Telluride Wine Festival tent at the base of the Telluride gondola station.

“It’s a deeper bench than we had before,” Holbrooke said of the four-person staff now in place (and working closely with Pinhead Board of Directors’ co-chairs Lindsey Welch and Max Strang).

The staff size has more than doubled since the recent departures of Executive Director Sonchia Jilek (still onboard to help with logistics for this summer’s internship program) and former Associate Director Amy Laubenstein, now at home with a new baby.

Even Pinhead Founder Nana Naisbitt, now executive director of the Telluride Science Research Center, Pinhead’s partner program, “has jumped back in” to help managing Pinhead’s growth spurt.

“She’s got such a wealth of science contacts,” Holbrooke said of Naisbitt, the author of High Tech High Touch: Technology and Our Source for Meaning. 

Naisbitt founded Pinhead Institute, a Smithsonian Affiliate science-education organization, in 2001 with an eye to providing “rural youth with the opportunity to gain exposure to some of the greatest minds in the field of scientific study,” according to the website. During her long tenure, Naisbitt implemented Pinhead’s flourishing summer Internship Program (this summer’s eight participants come from Nucla, Telluride, Ridgway and even Farmington, N.M.), and its visiting Scholar in the School program, which brings a visiting scientist to every classroom in the Telluride region during the school year.

“People say these scholars get kids really interested in science,” Holbrooke has found, in talking to school and library officials throughout the region. “One scholar might be really good at discussing rocket science with third graders, and another at explaining molecular biology to tenth graders.”

But the role Pinhead can play in educating the children of the Western San Juans, she believes, is this: “All it takes is a couple of times” of hearing working scientists describe their jobs “to get kids to realize that science is fun.”

Holbrooke has impressive science-geek credentials of her own, having graduated from Wesleyan University with a double major in English and Psychology, with a concentration in bio-psychology (at one point researching, she recalled, “the effects of beta blockers on the pleasure center in rat brains”).

After college, “I just kind of fell into television news,” said Holbrooke, who worked for over two decades as a filmmaker and Peabody award-winning television producer with ABC News, CBS News and CNN, and collaborated with anchors Peter Jennings, Larry King and Katie Couric.

Her science background proved helpful when it came to interviewing scientists about events “like tornadoes or hurricanes or earthquakes, because I could really understand what they were talking about.”

Wrapping up her third week on the job with Pinhead, Holbrooke finds herself in familiar territory.

“I’m on a listening tour to find out what the community needs,” she said Monday.

“We’re going from west to east,” she said, of on-the-ground interviews with school and library officials from Nucla and Naturita to Telluride to Ridgway.

In the aftermath of one of those conversations, with Telluride R-1 School District Superintendent Kyle Schumacher, she’s in the beginning stages of launching “a computer coding camp, this summer, in our Pinhead headquarters,” as a complement to Telluride Middle School’s computer code programming course planned for the coming school year.

“We’ll teach them Java,” she said of the Pinhead program, dubbed Code Clubhouse, on tap for this summer.

On another front, she’s working to move the applications deadline for summer science internships from January to early fall, to get an earlier start on placements for the summer program.

But for Holbrooke, the bottom line is this: “I love to tell other people’s stories,” she said. “It’s really fun to find something amazing, and bring it to a larger audience.

“That’s the parallel I have here at Pinhead,” she said, of what links her work, in the first two decades of her career, to what she’s doing now.

“But now, instead of presenting stories” about scientific advances “as network television news to an audience of four million, I’m bringing them to an audience of young people, who are like sponges, soaking it up.

“I’m talking to students who say that Pinhead has changed their lives,” she said.

“I know science is cool and amazing, and I know that science will save the world,” said Holbrooke, who has found the perfect platform for sharing that message.

SARAH HOLBROOKE (Courtesy photo)

SARAH HOLBROOKE (Courtesy photo)

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