Jennifer Moorehead: Using science to empower children

Jennifer Moorehead points to a safe, about six-feet-tall, that anchors one end of her Mohnton office. Knick-knacks line the shelves inside: variously-shaped rocks – dozens of them – and a hat on the bottom shelf that looks like an alligator head.

She asks me to move the safe’s door. It’s heavy, very heavy. Then she points to the floor, which is reinforced to bear the structure’s weight. The safe fell through the floor when her science education company first tried to move it. It was one of many surprises discovered after the company purchased the 200-year-old building at auction a few years ago.

The odds and ends in the safe are representative of the interior of the former manufacturing facility on Wyomissing Avenue in Mohnton, Berks County.

Moorehead, whose home is also attached to the office and warehouse, rattles off some of her recent furniture finds: she nabbed a pantry from a nearby restaurant for free. She bought office cubicles from another closed business for pennies on the dollar. It’s eclectic, she said of her style.

The building itself was used for manufacturing Pennsylvania long rifles, then later as a silk mill and then a cabinet factory.

It’s now home to Moorehead’s company, Science Explorers Inc., which creates, supports and helps to teach hands-on science programs to kids ages 4 through 11.

The company is entering its 20th year. Moorehead, known as Jupiter Jen to staff and the students, is the company’s gregarious founder and CEO.

Science Explorers reaches classrooms throughout Pennsylvania, including schools in Lancaster and York counties, as well as  New Jersey and Delaware. It operates about 300 afterschool programs, summer science camps, on-site field trips and custom programs.

Moorehead employs 22 people full-time. In the field, independent contractors operate the camps and classes. Science Explorers brings in about $2.1 million in annual revenue, she said.

Not too shabby for Moorehead, who admits she didn’t like science in school. She found it dry and uninteresting when studying it from a textbook.

“I love to read, but I love to read interesting things. It wasn’t making sense to me, I couldn’t get the visual,” she said.

It clicked, eventually

After college, Moorehead went into marketing, and by 1997 she was hired by a California-based company to promote its science-based clubs and workshops. Most of her work entailed conducting kid-friendly experiments for school assemblies.

“It was a very progressive program. The theater part I could definitely do,” she said.

She had an epiphany doing this work. Science had always been a part of her life. It was camping, vacationing at the shore and picking up shells when she was a child. It was growing a massive garden with her family and incubating chicken eggs.

“I didn’t realize it because it was fun,” she said. “After doing the assemblies, it clicked. I’m a hands-on learner.”

The California company ended up pulling out of the market after two years. Moorehead decided to branch out on her own. She already had relationships with about 17 schools.

“I called each school and I said that I’m going to try this. Are you game? Not one school backed out,” she said. “We had a mish-mash of instructors and a tag-team of lessons. I think back on that and I don’t know how I did it.”

The company really took off after she won $25,000 in Penn State’s Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ competition. It was the seed money she needed.

Photo/Christopher Holland

In 2003 she launched the S.P.A.R.K.S. Foundation, naming it in honor of her husband, Clark, who passed away. “His dad called him Sparky,” she said. On the foundation website, the letters also stand for Science Projects Are Really Kids’ Stuff.

The foundation’s goal was to help serve families who couldn’t afford the camps or after-school programs.

“Not only were some poor kids not able to attend the program, it was the families that had two, three, four kids and didn’t have the discretionary income,” she said. “How do we reach all the other kids who deserve quality, inquiry-based science?”

The first foundation partnership was with the Ametek Foundation for a pilot program in Pittsburgh. The program received $30,000 in the inaugural year. The next year Ametek tripled its commitment, and now it’s grown nationally.

A UGI partnership with the foundation targets fourth-grade students in 50 schools, from Scranton to Harrisburg to Lancaster and Easton.

“The foundation kids are not going to the museums, they are not going to the ocean for vacation … We are giving those kids those experiences. They have that memory that they can be a chemist, an electrical engineer or a marine biologist. It shows them possibilities,” she said. “Our avenue is science, but it’s really an avenue to empowerment. That could be our legacy. I get choked up about that.”

Moorehead isn’t in the classrooms much now. She half-jokes now that she is the happiness director and director of fun for the company.

“I am full-time party planner,” she said. “At this point I kind of observe. I’m establishing relationships. We have a policy of kindness here and that policy is enforced.”

Why a kindness policy?

Moorehead said she drives by other companies and says to herself, “I’m so glad that I don’t work there.’ We have all the perks that all the teachers go into teaching for … we don’t have reports. There’s no testing. There’s no report cards.”

Science Explorers and the foundation are also leaning more toward a Google-esque kind of workplace environment, she said.

“We are going to kill it with fun. My mission is for the people that work here to want to be here. They don’t have to be here,” she said. “It’s not the best-paying job but it offers all the perks of a fun place to be. People are doing things because they want to be be here, not because they have to.”

And like the longevity of the historic building where she works and lives, Moorehead would love to see her legacy continue in the hands-on learning process. The company and foundation are prime for scaling.

“I would love to build more partnerships to reach the kids that cannot afford the program,” she said. “This business has been vetted; we are 20 years in.”

Odds and ends about Moorehead and her enterprise

Here are some snippets of the conversation that I had recently with Moorehead. 

Why the cute science nicknames?

Each person who works for Science Explorers and each student participating is identified by a science name: Jupiter Jen, Solar Sara, for example. It’s fun, but it’s also important to kids, Moorehead said.

“It helps me remember names. Also now that the world offers so many creative names … some that I couldn’t pronounce. In Rochester’s districts we had 48 different languages … if I couldn’t pronounce (or remember) the first name I would use their science one. Kids want to be acknowledged by name, even if it’s their science name. They don’t care; they just want to know that I’m talking to them.”

How many kids have you reached?

No hard number on that, Moorehead said. Part of her goal for the 20th year is to find out how many schools and how many kids the program has reached. It’s a rather large number, she is confident of that.

“We are buying (and the employees are preparing kits) every five weeks for 7,000 children. It’s not always those same 7,000 coming through that five-week program.”

How are you a role model for girls?

“It’s showing girls that you can do anything. That’s empowering. Most of our instructors are women,” she said.

When the program first started, it used to be 80 percent boys and 20 percent girls attending the clubs. Now you see a more 50-50 split,” she said.

It’s not only having female role models, but it’s important to note how you are teaching.

“I read a study on this … girls will much more have a tendency to say ‘Can you help me?’ and it’s much more of a tendency for the instructor to just pick up do the next step for the girl.”

When a boy asks for help, teachers tend to ask them, “Well, what do you need to do?”

“I caught myself doing it, too,” Moorehead said. “Wait a minute, I need to stop doing that. Girls are very capable of figuring it out.”

Coming back to the nest

When she started the company, she was working out of her garage in East Earl Township, Lancaster County. Her kids were 4, 8 and 10. Now all three, ages 25, 29 and 31, are back “home” working for Moorehead.

“That warms my heart. To have the kids join the family business and being able to employ three of my children.”

An overdue apology 

In school, Moorehead wasn’t a fan of science. Later, after finding success with her company, she sent an apology note to her 10th-grade biology teacher because she did so poorly in his class.

“‘I’m so sorry, but thank you for passing me,’ I wrote to him,” she said. “He assures me that I passed on my own. I don’t believe him.”

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