Thursday, September 27, 2007

Teknikens Hus in Lulea, Sweden

Teknikens Hus, voted the “Best Small Science Center” at the last Science Center World Congress, is a vibrant center that pays a lot of attention to its local industries and their technology.

Located on the campus of the University of Technology in Lulea, the center was conceived in 1979 by a woman who was responsible for recruiting new students. Her vision was to create a center that would show children about local industries and inspire them, particularly girls, to pursue degrees in engineering and other technical subjects at the local university.

The center has an exhibit design philosophy that is unusual, if not unique. The center’s goals are similar to most science centers and museums: to inspire interest and curiosity for science and technology. Its current director (who previously served as head of exhibits and has been with the center since before its construction) is an historian and a former theater set designer. Building on this background, the exhibits have an immersive quality that is rare, especially in a relatively small center (2,500 m2 or 25,000 SF of public space).

Once the topic for an exhibit has been selected, the three design priorities, in order, are: 1) using the real McCoy, such as a real airplane propeller that visitors can spin with a motor and adjust the pitch of the blades and feel the difference in the wind speed. Other examples include a real hydraulic log lifter that visitors can use to move around real logs (the cockpit of the machine is inside the building but the machine sticks out through the wall, and the mechanisms and logs are all outside.)

The second priority, when full size is not possible, is a working scale model, such as this papermaking machine that reproduces the main functions of a 100-m-long machine in a 10-m-long model. It uses 1.5 tonnes of pulp annually, and visitors can make a real piece of paper with it, from pulp to pressing and drying. As a nice touch at the end, Teknikens Hus provides a seal of the museum with which visitors can imprint their piece of paper. This photo shows the first of three sections of the machine, which altogether is about 10 m long.

Another example of this type of exhibit is a working, model-scale hydroelectric power plant.

The third option is a non-working model, such as a sawmill, which would be too dangerous, dusty, and noisy to do in the museum but which represents an important industry that Teknikens Hus wants to represent. All of these exhibits are sponsored by local industry, which believes that the center provides a useful opportunity for increased student awareness of technical careers. Here is the entrance to a blast furnace - another important local industry being steel, of which 250 different varieties are produced locally.

Teknikens Hus draws primarily from Lulea (70K residents) and a regional audience of 250K. Its 100K annual attendance is remarkable, and every school child in the region has had multiple experiences there by the time they have graduated from high school.

The center realizes that it must continually change its exhibits and programs to spark repeat visits and hosts 7-8 traveling exhibits annually using 2 spaces. Currently, its main temporary exhibition is called “Cold Poles, Hot Stuff”, which shows visitors what it is like to do research at the poles. This picture shows the view from the bow of an icebreaker, and small viewers on posts at the corners show video clips of wildlife that you might actually see in polar regions. As with all exhibits at Teknikens Hus, the design of the deck here uses the same materials, colors, and design as the real thing.

A small cold room lets visitors try to assemble metal parts with bulky gloves on. Puzzles let visitors put the right animals at the right pole (polar bears fit only at the North Pole, while penguins fit only at the South Pole). 2 large circular floor maps help visitors understand that the polar regions start at latitudes above 60 degrees (not just above the polar circles, and some pieces of real research hardware give visitors a sense of some of the types of research going on.

A web-based, real-time weather readout displays the current temperature (a chilling -39 deg C in one case), wind speed, and relative humidity at 2 research stations, one near each pole.

Other features of Teknikens Hus include science theater shows daily (a penguin meets a researcher, and the audience learns about the ways penguins are adapted to survive in Antarctica); a 20-seat planetarium featuring the northern lights as a backdrop, a café that serves as a mensa/cafeteria for the local university at lunchtime, and gift shop.

Teknikens Hus has a staff of 25, of which 1/3 are in the exhibits dept. This group, like several other museums, does a brisk business in exhibit manufacture and traveling exhibition rentals.

The center has several programs related to sustainability and creativity. In one program, school students work in groups to create a vision of the future, develop a project (model, PowerPoint presentation, theatrical production, exhibit) and the top entry from each of 6 science centers go annually to southern Sweden to present their vision to the other 5. Another program encourages students to invent a solution to a real problem, and entries are judged and winning entries displayed. School programs have been designed around current exhibitions, and one uses these ice core models to talk about the physics, chemistry, and biology of polar regions.

Sustainability is a theme that has appeared twice in Teknikens Hus’s traveling exhibitions. A previous exhibition, called “Grasping Climate,” is currently on display at the Nacka Natural School near Stockholm and will be described in a future post. Overall, the goals of the center are to make the public aware that climate change is happening and that everyone can do something about it. A key philosophical outlook is that even if a single individual’s action has a small effect, when adopted by everyone, the impact can be large and important.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Heureka in Vantaa, Finland

Heureka, located just north of Helsinki, packs a lot of activity into a relatively small indoor space and uses its extensive outdoor area very effectively. The center is a short, enjoyable walk from the train/bus station through a wooded area and over an artistically designed cable-stayed footbridge over a river running through the city.

Inside, Heureka has features of museums much larger. It knows that it must change exhibits frequently to maintain repeat visitation and has a good mix of permanent exhibitions, new single exhibits, and touring shows, for which it has two galleries. Some of these temporary shows are designed internally and others rented from other museums; a new exhibition developed by Heureka on shipping was just being set up while an exhibition on Mexican anthropology was in the other gallery.

The indoor exhibits were a combination of mostly original designs plus modifications of favorites found in other museums and a few purchases and trades. The use and integration of technology were some of the best I have seen. For example, a new exhibition on smart transportation systems includes an Internet-based station with 3 screens where visitors can see all of the planes in the air over North America (some 4,000 planes by the afternoon), all of the ships in the Helsinki area, and all of the city buses in Helsinki. By moving a crosshair over any given vehicle with a trackball, visitors can see, for example, a plane’s destination, flight path, number, ground speed, and height. All of these data are actually available on the Internet, but the museum, in partnership with a local university, has developed a museum-friendly interface that works very well and lets visitors experience several aspects of current transportation technology seen normally only in movies.

As another example, a nearby station in this exhibition uses 4 ceiling-mounted cameras to track the movements of visitors in the exhibition. Again, using custom software, a screen toggles between showing the movement of individual visitors and which areas receive the most amount of visitor time – something many museums have spent significant resources to do by hand. This system does it in real time and demonstrates computer vision and recognition, another powerful element of intelligent traffic systems. The floor is a huge, printed satellite image of the region, and at selected points, monitors in the floor display real-time images of intersections, and LED displays show average traffic speed.

Other indoor highlights include several geodesic-domed amphitheater areas for science shows (including one in which rats play basketball), a domed theater (which is being converted to a digital planetarium from an older 870 film projection system), a large auditorium, gift shop, and the Einstein Café, a full-service lunch facility.

The outdoor science park is large at 8,000 m2 (2 acres) and has a number of original exhibits, such as a climb-in-able Klein Bottle, a thermometer that works by measuring the expansion of long copper pipes mounted on the side of the museum, and a wind machine that lets visitors experience the force of the wind blowing at 25 m/sec (shown here).

Various water exhibits range from a human treadmill-powered Archimedian Screw to a build-it-yourself arch bridge over a small streamlet.

Other outdoor exhibits include extensive plantings, a garden of flowers organized by numbers of petals from 1 to 12, the largest rock park I have ever seen, and even a “clock garden,” in which the flowers bloom according to the time of the day.

Heureka, like many other European museums I have visited in the past several months, has a strong interest in the environment and believes that it has an important role to play in helping its visitors become more aware of global warming and to become better decision makers without dictating which specific behaviors are “best.” A series of new permanent exhibits on recycling help visitors learn about the implications of choices they make in selecting and disposing of common products, for example.

Under development is a new school program in the form of a game that is linked to their transportation exhibition and will allow teams of students to travel (virtually) between cities to perform various tasks using wireless PDAs. Throughout the game, they will have to optimize conflicts such as travel time and CO2 emissions and will receive real-time feedback on their decisions.

In this and many of their other activities and exhibits, Heureka demonstrates a strong commitment to group or family learning. Exhibits for the most part have been designed and displayed to promote group interactions, and it was clear from watching visitors that they were engaged and learning from each other as well as from the exhibits. In this exhibit, teams of visitors team up to form a virtual fireman's blanket and catch falling items in a politically corrected version of the mid-80s computer game "Bouncing Babies."

Funding-wise, Heureka obtains slightly more than 50% of its US $9 million budget from the City of Vantaa and Ministry of Education. This is in keeping with many European museums, which typically rely on earned income sources for 1/3 to ½ of their annual operating budget.

One area where Heureka differs significantly from other European science centers and museums is their use of volunteers. Whereas volunteering at a museum is rare in Europe, Heureka has about 80 active volunteers, modeling their program after U.S. museums and finding that volunteering fits in with the culture in Finland.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

La Cite de la Sciences et l’Industrie in Paris, France

La Cite is a very large science center, which opened in 1986 on the site of a former slaughterhouse in northeastern Paris.

The project was part of a redevelopment effort to revitalize this part of the city and has by all indications been successful, as the overall venue welcomes 3 million visitors each year, including 1.5 million to the science center. Shown here is the large IMAX dome theater.

The scale of La Cite is grand. It mounts some 10-12 temporary exhibitions each year. 1,000 staff work with an annual budget of about $140 million. 25% of the building is still unused and available for other uses or expansion. Some ¾ of the budget is provided by the French government each year, and the rest is earned through admissions, food, gift shop, and IMAX income.

The majority of the exhibits are relatively non-interactive and target adults with a broad variety of topics such as energy, cars, astronautics, etc. There are relatively few pure science exhibits.

A current science area, which is managed by a staff of 20, changes to a new theme each quarter. The current topic is Africa, and a wide range of information panels, interactive computer stations, artwork, and other objects invites visitors to learn more about development in this region of the world. At one end of the area is a large round black granite table with computer stations where visitors can dig into several areas of current science and vote their opinions.

A major area for children is currently being renovated. Once completed, it will be 5,000 m2 (50,000 sq ft) and will include two areas; one for 2-5 year olds and one for 5-11 year olds (La Cite finds that after age 11, relatively few children come to the science center or use hands-on exhibits). The exhibits in both areas have been created with developmental psychology in mind and are interesting from a pedagogical viewpoint.
In the younger area, the exhibits are very colorful, simple, and attractive for young children, with a hollowed out tree, a kangaroo with a pouch that small children can crawl into, and some excellent water play.

My favorite part of this area, however, was a construction zone in which children can build structures with weighted foam blocks, using a large crane, trains, and various building elements. Optional hardhats and construction jackets are provided, and most children enjoy dressing the part. A wonderful side benefit of this construction area is that children who have never met each other must learn to work as a team in order to accomplish anything.

In the area designed for older children, exhibits run a broad gamut of topics from a mini-butterfly house to biochemistry and robotics. Exhibits are designed as props for adults to facilitate learning of the children with them. Signage is not encyclopedic, but rather supportive of adults. It works well, and it is easy to see why La Cite is a favorite destination for children and families.

A number of the exhibits in this area were based on the theme of communication. A small, immersive area included messages and examples of food from other cultures. There were opportunities to try writing messages in other languages.

In a fun variation on the pneumatic message-tube exhibit, the air pressure needed to send the message to the other end station is generated by visitors sitting on the round red seat near the exhibit.

La Cite has made a major commitment, as an institution, to sustainability and helping the public understand issues related to climate change. A major exhibition about 4 years ago called “Climax” provided an immersive experience intended to jolt visitors into thinking about the potential impacts of global warming. The exhibition opened one month after the heat wave that killed 35,000 Europeans and had Parisian morgues overflowing.

Members of the museum staff indicate that public understanding of global warming in France has reached the point where this earlier exhibition would no longer be considered current science; i.e., people in France have moved beyond needing to be convinced of global warming and its human causes and now are more interested in what to do about it.

A more recent exhibition, which just closed last month, was called “A New Era” and treated a number of issues related to future climate change scenarios, as well as what we can do to leave a smaller carbon footprint while maintaining a quality of life similar to that which we now enjoy.

As an institution, La Cite has committed itself to engaging the public in conversations about sustainability and climate change. The center realizes that it can’t do this without “walking the talk” itself, and it is now looking at many aspects of its operations, from lighting, insulation, and building energy usage, to the messages it shares with the public through its exhibitions and programs. It now has a fulltime sustainability coordinator, whose goal is to work with all departments to align their operations with sustainable practices such as recycling, energy conservation, etc. La Cite also plans to include sustainability as a constant element in all of its future exhibitions, much as it now includes universal design.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Palais de la decouverte in Paris, France

The Palais de la Decouverte (Palace of Discovery) is celebrating its 70th birthday this year and has quite a track record: a recent survey showed that 50% of the major scientists in France were inspired through one or more visits to the Palais during their youth. While currently enshrouded in scaffolding and undergoing a major renovation on the outside, there is still plenty to see inside.

The building is spectacular inside. Originally built for the 1900 World Exposition in Paris, the center was the later brainchild of a Nobel Laureate who believed that the public deserved more contact with scientific phenomena. To that end, the exhibits in the Palais are somewhat in the background, and often non-interactive.

The focus is decidedly on real science and contact with real scientists, so each subject area has one or more small amphitheaters. Paid explainers, who account for 30% of the staff, present more than 60 live shows daily. Shows are less theatrical than in some science centers, but visitors often linger afterwards for quite a while with questions. Since the presenters tend to be scientists (and not actors trained to present the shows), these conversations can become extensive. Here is a doctoral student presenting the show "Liquid Air."

There are 30 individual amphitheaters within the museum, and each one is different (seats, format, etc.) Funding for the Palais’s $20 million budget comes 75% from the government, with the remaining 25% from earned income sources such as admissions, gift shop, etc. and a few corporate sponsorships.

While at the Palais, we were invited backstage to speak with a firm from Boulder, CO, that was just finishing up the installation of a huge shake table as part of a new exhibition on volcanoes and earthquakes. We were able to take the first ride on this multi-level, 3-axis shaking machine, which was programmed to generate a Magnitude 7 event for us. Since our family had been close to ground zero for the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California (Mag 7.2), this ride felt all too familiar.

The Palais has made a strong effort at making the public more aware of global warming as an issue. Most recently, they have mounted a 6-month temporary exhibition on polar science and global warming while celebrating the 1937 scientific expedition of Paul-Emile Victor to Greenland 70 years ago.

The exhibition compares fauna at the two poles (polar bears live only in the arctic region, penguins only in the Antarctic) and has a number of exhibits demonstrating principles of ocean currents, icebergs, glaciers, albedo, and the food chain in cold marine climates. A section on Inuit culture includes many artifacts from the everyday life of people of Greenland.

Here is a view through a portion of the exhibition with various small rooms and exhibits on the science of ice and climate at the poles. This was an ambitious project that included natural history collections (re polar bears, etc.), cultural artifacts, and interactive exhibits on the physics of the poles. These last exhibits were themselves an experiment, and the developers expressed the difficulty of creating robust hands-on exhibits on the subject of ice and climate change.

A Danish artist, who had recently lived and taught in a small village of 300 (including 72 K-12 school students) created a poignant mini-exhibition of artwork done by her students. Our visit happened to coincide with the opening reception for the art teacher. 3 Inuit children were brought to Paris for a week, and one can hardly imagine their thoughts, having never before left their isolated village.

I was particularly taken by one piece of artwork, which depicted an elder talking with a youth about the old ways. Here you see the old man thinking about the fjords, hunting, polar bears and seals, while the boy is thinking about cans of Coke and fairy tales.

After a cycle of conversations on various aspects of Inuit life, the youth gains a new appreciation for some of the old values. However, given the speed of warming at the poles, it is possible that many of the activities associated with the old way of life may simply not be possible in the near future because of changes in climate.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Eden Project in Cornwall, England

Several friends and colleagues recommended a visit to the Eden Project, not so much as a traditional science center, but as a place where science is all around and just waiting to be discovered. It was well worth the effort (which included renting a car and taking a self-taught crash course in driving on the left side of the road).

Eden is a product of the Millennium Commission, which financed the project as a way to bring more people into a region that had become depressed following the closing of most of the mines in the 1960s and 70s. It is constructed in an old pit from which China clay was mined. The facility might be described as a botanical garden with a strong message of sustainable development woven throughout its exhibits, which include thousands of species of plants and numerous exhibits on our use of plants It has two biomes (see photo). The left one, which is the largest conservatory in the world, houses tropical plants, while the right one houses plants found in Mediterranean and Californian regions.

The displays are thought-provoking, with many opportunities to see frequently used plants we rarely see - how often do we get the chance to see coffee, sugar, tea, rice, cotton, or hemp (shown here) plants growing? - as well as learn more about the people who grow them.

Other indoor displays in a building called “The Core” include curio-type cabinets with figures and messages to think about; a wall of refrigerator doors to write magnetic poetry on; a tree of cycles, with disks depicting the water, carbon, nitrogen, and other cycles.

Many of these displays have messages that provide information and/or thought-provoking questions but (purposefully) stop short of advocating what to do. The educational philosophy of Eden is to inspire people to think on their own, given information and questions.

This was one of the many specialty gardens at Eden and my personal favorite. In this case, staff surveyed a number of people to see what they would like to have and then went ahead and built it.

In the center of The Core is a seed, carved from a single block of granite, which serves as a reminder of Eden's message about sustainability for living things. It looks much like a pine cone and weighs in at 70 tons. The Queen dedicated it.

A few other exhibits have been added to appeal to teens, including a dance mat (with an ecological theme), a shooting gallery (in which species lost cause other changes in the food chain) and a series of old cars in which Elvis takes riders through a virtual tour around the world in search of the right ingredients a pizza: at the end, visitors find that the ingredients have traveled some 24,000 km to get to their table.

One popular activity for young visitors is a treasure hunt called the cake challenge. Visitors must find all the ingredients for a cake somewhere at Eden and then they receive an actual baked cake. In the process, they reach many different parts of Eden and learn more about the diversity of plants needed even to make something as common as a cake.

Things are big, bold, spectacular, colorful, and decidedly on-message. Food service, for example, (which is everywhere - 9 different eating venues), promotes messages of nutrition, local sourcing, and minimal packaging. Even the tables at Eden all have a message. Everyone on the staff we met really walked the talk and seemed decidedly committed to the mission. One of the head curators was out on the floor in jeans on Sunday as an explainer, talking with visitors about the next big project: a desert biome called "The Edge."

The core message is clear - Eden hopes its 1.2 million visitors will increase their appreciation for the interconnectedness of everything and grow more curious about (and question) the impact of our activities on the world, its ecosystems, and its people. Everything here supports the message, even the hand driers in the restrooms. The device shown here really works - drawing your hands slowly out for only 5 seconds leaves your hands totally dry, with no paper.

The response has been remarkably positive. Eden appears to be one of the few financially successful edutainment venues that relies almost entirely on earned income, and yet it has resources for doing everything according to the highest standards of sustainability, exceptional maintenance, and investment in new facilities. At the same time, it is sponsoring more than a dozen major outreach projects in developing countries throughout the world. Described here are only 2 of the many.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Techniquest in Cardiff, Wales

Techniquest, a science center located in Wales and just an hour west of Bristol (see last post), was the first re-development project in a relatively abandoned and seedy waterfront area in what at one time was the busiest port in the world (due to shipments of coal, which was mined nearby and shipped internationally from Cardiff).

The adjacent area has become decidedly posh, with new restaurants and clubs and plenty of shopping for tourists. The seat of the Welsh government is only 500 m distant.

In designing its building, Techniquest took the footprint and structural steel frame of an abandoned shipyard facility. One long wall to the south is glass, which gives the exhibits natural lighting and a visitor-friendly atmosphere.

The exhibits are highly interactive and are developed and built in-house, with bright colors and a style that is unlike most other museums. Although the exhibit cases look as if they are made of plastic, they are for the most part wood, built up in layers of plywood and mostly shaped by a computer-driven router. Techniquest has almost a dozen exhibit staff, and most are employed in building exhibits for other museums around the world in addition to their own projects.

Some of the exhibits are clever modifications of old favorites. For example, this Hand Battery exhibit is very user-friendly and includes 8 different metals (in comparison with the usual 3). But in spite of this potential complexity, the physical design makes it easy to see what to do and visitors quickly get it.

The center places a high value on personal contact with visitors thru science shows and has 3 presentation venues: 1) a 100-seat amphitheater, 2) a 25-seat planetarium, and 3) a flexible lab/project room shown here. The amphitheater is used for 3-4 shows per day on the weekends, while the planetarium runs 7-8 shows daily. Although there are now almost 30 different planetarium shows (all written in-house), all end with a brief display of the night sky of that day, so that visitors can go home and look for certain constellations or other astronomical objects if the skies are clear. The lab is also well used and can be set up for chemical extractions, physics, or a number of other activities for school or family groups.

The center believes that it should be reaching every person in Wales and has aggressively set up satellites in other corners of the country to serve as hubs for outreach. They currently estimate that they provide an average of about 10 minutes of science experience per person per year in the country and plan to build this over time towards at least an hour. This exhibition on music is an effort to reach new audiences and has been relatively successful in bringing in more teens to Techniquest.

Techniquest has begun a major new initiative related to the science of sustainability and climate change. Following David Attenborough’s recent lead, the center has made it a top priority and is working toward the day when one-quarter of its exhibits and programming are related to sustainability.

During the past summer, climate change was the theme for much of their programming and they created a series of temporary exhibits and activities to help visitors become more aware of the issue, including a huge outdoor world map with a facilitated activity on how far your food travels. The energy related to globally vs. locally sourced food is a common theme in European science centers; one used frequently among centers working on visitor awareness of climate change. The exhibit has now been largely dismantled, but this kiosk and a few other exhibits remain; here you can see a fully sealed biological system which has been operating without anything but light and heat for several years. It is used primarily as a prop for explainers in talking with visitors about the interconnections in an ecosystem.

Perhaps most importantly, the director and staff of the center have made a strong commitment to global warming as a critical issue facing the world of the future and one around which they plan to commit significant programmatic resources. The next phase is a proposal to a major foundation to develop a series of permanent outdoor exhibits and related programming on the topic of climate change.