Children's Discovery Museum San Jose
HOME · Environment

Interview: Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose

Cecilia Clark, PR/Communications Lead, Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose

What was the vision for the establishment of the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose?

In 1982, two Santa Clara County moms, Reba Wehrly, and Carolyn Nelson thought the South Bay should join the enlightened ranks of cities and towns that had built or were building a children’s museum. 

After a commissioned “public opinion poll” demonstrated widespread support, the two contacted the Los Angeles and Denver Children’s Museums for guidance. Buoyed by enthusiastic support and a big dream, they were off and running. A board of directors was created, and planning began in earnest. In 1983, the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose was incorporated as a 501(c) tax-exempt organization.

The vision was to build a place that children could call their own. A place that encouraged hands-on discoveries and supported children’s innate curiosity and creativity, a place where children were empowered to make decisions, be in charge, and find joy in unstructured play.

Blowing bubbles in Bill’s Backyard
Blowing bubbles in Bill’s Backyard

Since its opening in 1991, the museum has grown into a leading children’s museum meeting the evolving needs of families and children, including the museum’s inclusion and cultural competence initiatives, child obesity prevention, LGBTQ, Disability, and Autism programs, the Museums for All access program, and environmental education programs including BioSITE, and the half-acre outdoor learning environment, Bill’s Backyard. The space opened in October 2017, nearly doubling the museum’s exhibit space and connecting kids to nature. 

A 4,000-square-foot outdoor expansion is currently underway to enhance environmental education experiences. Inside, the museum has embarked on a planning project to develop and build an exhibition and celebration on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. 

Find out more on our website here.

2.  Tell us about your museums' programs involving environmental issues, specifically concerning your strategic commitments:

  • Creativity Through the Arts
  • Science Learning
  • Environmental Stewardship

Our artist-in-residence program has featured environmental artists, including Zach Pine and Sam van Aken.  

As one of our artists-in-resident, Pine worked side-by-side with children to assemble, create and build nature sculptures with nature’s loose parts.

Artist Zach Pine

Socially engaged environmental artist Zach Pine has connected thousands of people with nature through installing hands-on "Create-With-Nature Zones" in parks, schools, museums, and public spaces; hosting group events and workshops for making collaborative ephemeral art with nature; teaching in public and private schools; and consulting with and training teachers and museum staff.

Pine believes that creating a sustainable and healthy relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world depends upon our constructive and creative engagement with each other as well as with our shared environment.

Artist, Farmer, Professor Sam Van Aken

San Van Aken and Tree of 40 Fruit
San Van Aken and Tree of 40 Fruit

We work with Sam Van Aken, a farmer, university professor, and environmental artist who grafted one of his Tree of 40 Fruit trees in Bill’s Backyard. Each Tree of 40 Fruit is a single grafted tree that grows forty different types of heirloom and antique stone fruit, from peaches, plums, and apricots to nectarines and cherries.

Bursting with stunning blossoms in a kaleidoscope of variegated pink, white, and crimson tones throughout spring, and bearing a multitude of fruit in summer, these trees are not only gorgeous, but they also deliver the goods.

The artist and university professor who grew up on a farm is disrupting environmental art and agriculture with his Tree of 40 Fruit project. Part artwork, part research, and part conservation, Van Aken’s initial experiment in grafting has now blossomed into more than 50 living sculptures across the country.

We believe that helping children better understand agriculture and how food is grown will help them make healthy choices. Aken’s environmental stewardship and creativity are a great example for our families.

Bill’s Backyard

Research shows that childhood has moved indoors in one generation, and children’s well-being is suffering. There is a direct connection between daily exposure to nature and children’s emotional and cognitive well-being. The museum’s outdoor learning environment, Bill’s Backyard, was created to address these concerns and connect kids to nature.

The outdoor learning environment includes a cistern for rain catchment that provides water for the drought-tolerant and mostly native plants in Bill’s Backyard, and solar panels on the roof support a portion of the museum’s electricity needs. 

When our café Foodshed was open, it incorporated ingredients grown in Bill’s Backyard into dishes, along with serving only locally sourced and mostly organic foods to align with our sustainability goals.

3. How do you intend to shape your museum's field-based environmental science program that teaches students about watershed ecology on our local rivers and streams exhibitions and programming? 

BioSITE fieldwork
a BioSITE group undertaking some fieldwork

BioSITE was first launched in 1993-94 and partners with San Jose Unified School District and Valley Water to engage students in coursework and field-based research along local creeks and rivers. High school students mentor middle school students in field research, so there is a mentoring component as well. There are three goals to the program: 

  • deepen children’s understanding of their own local watersheds through water testing, river mapping, species identification, wetland habitats, and more
  • connect these concepts to the larger ecological systems, especially the neighboring marine sanctuaries
  • and to increase opportunities for student environmental stewardship, including addressing compelling issues such as climate change, water, and drought management, and its effect on animals and marine life.

The program runs an entire school year, so students see how the change in seasons affects the river/creek health and the riparian habitats. In connecting the local watershed to the ocean, students learn how salmon is an indicator species.

Guest speakers share how environmental change like river and ocean health, drought, and overall climate change affect species populations, and how the sustainability of animal and marine populations inform us of what is happening ecologically and what needs protecting.

There are expert guest speakers during the year, such as marine biologists, who inspire many of the students with a desire to pursue the sciences and environmental education fields of study.  

Another extremely positive outcome is the environmental activism and stewardship that develops amongst the students after they begin to understand more about their local environment and what they can do to affect change. Students showcase their work while offering hands-on activities to museum visitors during the end-of-year BioSITE Open House held at the museum.

4. The International Committee for Museums and Collections of Science and Technology (CIMUSET), which is a scientific committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), during its 50th conference, will discuss enhancing the Accessibility to Museums: Future Science and Technology, and International Cooperation.  What programs/initiatives will your Museum institute to enhance the accessibility of your programs to students? 

We collaborate with San Jose Unified School District and Valley Water for BioSITE. We also work with Santa Clara County Parks Department and sometimes with Marine Science Institute. We have had speakers from UC Santa Cruz, Moss Landing Marine Labs, DeAnza College, and many more.

We are currently partnering with the City of San Jose Environmental Services Department to submit an Environmental Stewardship grant to provide BioSITE curriculum to underserved students in East San Jose with the goal of increasing watershed education in three languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese), developing environmental stewards, and restoring and enhancing of a local creek within a historically underserved community.

5.  How can people reach you?


By Selva Ozelli, Esq., CPA.

Selva Ozelli Esq, CPA is a legal and finance executive with diversified experience dealing with highly complex issues in the field of international taxation and related matters within the banking, securities, Fintech, alternative and traditional investment funds. Her first of its kind legal analyses involving tax laws, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), blockchain technology, solar technology and the environment and have been published in journals, books and by the OECD. Her writings have been translated into 15 languages.

Childrens Discovery Museum of San Jose
Pin Me:
Pin Image Portrait Interview: Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
Sign Up for Updates