Jason Fulmer remembers sitting under the dining room table as a young child, listening to his mother study for her classes at USC Aiken. Twenty-eight years later, he's a program director for the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement (CERRA) but once was a third grade teacher at Redcliffe Elementary School in Aiken County, and he said another thing that impacted his passion for science, math and education was visiting the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center shortly after it was built. Fulmer was state teacher of the year in 2004 and a national finalist.


The center celebrated its 25th anniversary on Thursday night with a dinner and program at the facility. Spread throughout were exhibits of the center's accomplishments, from middle school students explaining their displays of “elephant toothpaste” to visits with some of the center's scaly, four-legged or winged inhabitants.


It all began more than two decades ago with some ideas scribbled on a napkin over dinner, according to Dr. Gary Senn, director of the center.


“There was the recognition that there was not enough emphasis on science and mathematics,” Senn said.


The chancellor and community leaders got together to see what they could do to improve science and mathematics education in the community, according to Senn. They wanted to build an education center, and applied for a grant through the National Science Foundation.


“Some people there said, 'It would be best if you had someone to name your science center after – some renowned scientist,'” Senn said.


Enter Dr. Ruth Patrick, who was internationally known at that point, but especially so in the CSRA for her work preceding the development of the Savannah River Site, where she was asked to make a baseline study of the ecosystem in the area.


Since then, there have been more than 1.4 million school visits to the various programs at the center, including 90,000 student visits so far this year, according to Senn. The center focuses on providing engaging, hands-on programs related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics for children in grades kindergarten through 12th grade.


Senn said the number of people wanting to get to the center is testimony to how it's grown (and continues to grow), noting that between 8,000 and 10,000 students are on the waiting list to visit.


“It's like having a baby and watching it grow,” said Dr. Jeffrey Priest, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at USCA, and the first director of the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center.


Priest recalled reading a science magazine and seeing an ad for a director of a then-nameless science education program in Aiken. As director, he began speaking with local schools and educators, and soon generated enough interest and money to build the center's original building, which opened in 1991. The building has since been expanded and now includes a planetarium, classrooms and a computer learning center. He applauded the center's staff and the community partners for where the center is now.


“We can't hold enough programs for students,” Priest said. “The minute we open up sign-up for next year, we're filled.”


Those sign-ups once included Fulmer and his elementary school students. He keeps “memory books” of his students' work, including when he taught third grade. He held up one of the memory books during Thursday's program and read an entry by a student named Robert.


“My favorite thing about third grade was the field trip that we took to USC Aiken,” he read. “We got to go visit the planetarium, and we also have pen pals there. I want to go to college someday.”


Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012.