Dr. Debbie Cockerham was awarded the prestigious 'John Cotton Dana Award for Leadership' by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). Unlike the other awards that are given annually by AAM, this award is only given when merited, and the judges, all of whom are leaders in the field of museum education, unanimously felt that Dr. Cockerham was deserving of this honor. Based on the totality of an individual's career, this award recognizes an individual, other than someone working directly with museum education programs, for efforts on behalf of public education and community service. One judge wrote: "Debbie has quite an impressive track record and her work as a researcher and mentor to researchers is impactful for museums and the field. This work is crucial for museums to grow and change to meet the needs of current and future audiences, as well as to be impactful and relevant for visitors."
Dr. Cockerham is the founding and current director of the Research and Learning Center (RLC) at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (FWMSH). The RLC is at the intersection of research and education through interactive collaborations with university scientists, allowing guests to learn and actively experience the production of new knowledge. University researchers collaborate with Dr. Cockerham to clarify their questions, methods, and findings, then conduct their studies within the museum where they recruit guests as participants and interact with them in a relaxed setting. Guests learn from the scientists, and the research adds a new layer to the guests' learning experience. Van A. Romans, FWMSH President, says of Dr. Cockerham, "The RLC has quietly grown into a recognized program that has impacted so many researchers and guests. It takes a passionate, talented person to make that happen and I'm so proud that Debbie is that person!"
Dr. Cockerham exemplified collaboration through authentic relationships, meeting extensively with each researcher. She served as mentor as they navigated the research process and often struggled with communicating effectively to a lay audience. She stayed by their side through the study and, in some cases, co-authored their research. One researcher, and founding university partner, described the RLC as a "town square for the community with Debbie as the heart and center of the square." Debbie connects researchers with one another, creating collaborative research groups and hosting Poster Forums. Dr. Cockerham's genuine interest in researchers as people brings many guests back to the RLC.
Under Dr. Cockerham's leadership the RLC grew to encompass 11 universities and over 70 researchers, many of whom have returned for multiple studies. Since inception, 17,600 guests have participated with an additional 17,970 educational interactions about the process. Dr. Sarah Hill, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at TCU, said of Dr. Cockerham, "I have had the pleasure of working with Debbie to collect data on children's eating behavior at the museum. She is a tireless advocate for making science fun and accessible to everyone who enters the museum."
She is also a devoted activist for children with autism spectrum disorder, having spent 24 years as a special education educator. Debbie built a council of local experts, created an ongoing series of workshops for families and developed and implemented Sensory Aware Saturdays, events funded by local foundations that allow families with children on the spectrum to benefit from their private visit to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. The evening features sensory modifications and opportunities for families to connect with important support services. Over 1,300 guests have participated in these programs in the last four years.
Normally, Dr. Cockerham would have received this award in front of colleagues from across the country at the awards luncheon held at the AAM conference in San Francisco in May, which understandably had to be cancelled.