Suzanne (Ness) Hegg '68

Suzanne Hegg

Although she honed her skills while studying at Augustana, Suzanne (Ness) Hegg was drawn to education long before she attended college.

“From second grade on, I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” Hegg said. “I thought school was so exciting.” An education major, Hegg says she has always been a proud Augustana grad, citing her professors for the significant impact they had on her life.“ The quality of those teachers made me excited about the world and everything there was to learn and how I might bring that to other young people in my lifetime.”

After graduating from Augustana, she taught English to middle school and high school students in Volga and Brookings, South Dakota, for more than 20 years. While teaching, she was intrigued by the research published on brain mapping during developmental years for children. She was curious to see what influenced learning and what could accelerate it.

She took what she learned and applied it to her own classrooms. Her goal was to create “authentic, hands-on experiences” for the children by moving away from textbooks and focusing on application.

“Schools can be so concerned about testing,” Hegg said. “I really don’t care how they score on the tests. I want to know how they can apply it in real life.”

An opportunity to influence countless young learners came later in Hegg’s career when Pat and Dale Larson reached out to interview her for the executive director position at the children’s museum they hoped to build at the site of the former Central Elementary in Brookings, South Dakota. Hegg would go on to become an integral part of carrying out their dream.

Although she had never overseen a building project or worked for a museum before, Hegg believed she could learn how to do it.

“Ever since I’ve graduated from Augie, I had a lot of confidence that I could do a lot of different things."

Hegg had tagged along with her dad, a farmer who could build or fix anything, on construction projects when she was a child. She said having the opportunity to supervise the construction of the museum reminded her of those days.

After construction was finished, Hegg worked with board members to develop the building’s hands-on exhibits.

“Everything I knew about learning, I applied to developing the exhibits we do here,” she said. “The philosophy we use at the museum is paralleled with what I learned through my research as a teacher.”

Before developing the exhibits, Hegg brought together groups of community members who represented different demographics in the Brookings community. Through these meetings, Hegg and the CMSD board learned which community values were most common.

The exhibits include “Our Prairie,” designed to help kids investigate the lifestyles of traditional Dakota/Lakota people and pioneer settlers and experience contemporary farming; “Imagine a House,” a home-construction center that promotes the importance of working together; and “Splash,” a water-themed exhibit that challenges children to experiment and find solutions.

“These values became a driving force to develop the exhibits,” as did the concept of collaboration, Hegg said.

Hegg referred to one exhibit that rewards participants for achieving different levels with fun, flashing lights.

“Ultimately what kids discover is that if they work together, great things happen.”

Before the museum opened in 2010, a consultant predicted it would attract about 25,000 guests annually. This number was smashed within the first year, bringing in 120,000 guests.  

The Children’s Museum of South Dakota also collaborates with South Dakota Tourism to promote the museum and other area attractions. It is estimated the museum brings in around $5 million each year to the city.

“It raised quality of life for the community,” Hegg said.

She says she loves developing new programming for the museum which varies from summer classes to a magic show.

“We’re constantly working on collaborations with community groups,” Hegg said.“We want to give back to the community.”

Hegg is preparing to retire at the end of this summer.  Looking back on her career, she has a hard time picking her greatest achievement.

“I have truly loved my whole career,” Hegg said. If she had to pare it down to one thing, it would be this:  “making a difference in the lives of young people.”

In recognition of her life-long commitment to enriching the lives of children, Hegg will receive the Alumni Achievement Award during Viking Days this fall.