Charlie Trautmann ’74
Charlie Trautmann ’74. Majors: geophysics

When Charlie Trautmann ’74 went to work for the Sciencenter in Ithaca, N.Y., he was not just its executive director—he was its first paid employee. But he saw in the small, volunteer-staffed nonprofit museum an opportunity that combined three things he really liked: “science, kids and building things.”

Much of his 26-year career building up the Sciencenter, he says, has been about nurturing connections with other organizations and businesses around Ithaca, as well as inviting “people from the community to come to us with ideas for exhibits, for programs, for events.” 

But perhaps an even bigger priority for Trautmann, who joined the Sciencenter in 1990, has been expanding access for children and families. “We want to touch the life of every child in our region, not just the ones whose parents can afford to get them here,” he says. But how to do that? “Any family that has a child in free or reduced-price lunch at school, in a seven-county region around us, can get a free one-year membership,” he says. He’s a co-founder of Ithaca’s Discovery Trail, a network of seven museums and a library, through which every local second-grade class takes a free field trip to the Sciencenter. He says the museum welcomes 3,800 second-graders annually. 

We want to touch the life of every child in our region, not just the ones whose parents can afford to get them here.

Overall, thanks to these and other programs, “out of our 100,000 visitors a year, 14,000 of those don’t pay anything.” The museum also has an early childhood education program that involves a partnership with Head Start. 

The Sciencenter has gotten help along the way from other Amherst folks, including Bill Bassett ’54, a geology professor at Cornell; historian and organizational consultant Bill Weary ’64; and Lara Litchfield-Kimber ’92, the museum’s director of development from 2004 to 2012. When she was provost at Cornell, Amherst President Biddy Martin promoted collaborations between the university and the museum, Trautmann says. 

In his work, Trautmann has drawn from his summers as a Boy Scout camp counselor, his interdisciplinary geophysics major at Amherst, graduate degrees in engineering from Stanford and Cornell and a lifetime of visiting science museums around the world. He’s also father to two children who grew up visiting the museum and are now scientists.

Next spring he will retire from executive directorship of the Sciencenter and move on to a six-month sabbatical at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich. Supported by his third fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, he will travel throughout Europe, visiting museums, universities, nature schools and other institutions for insight into promoting environmental consciousness, cooperation and lifelong learning in young children.