Thursday, October 25, 2007

What Now???

The visit to Nacka Nature School was the final stop on my 3-month European tour. After returning to Munich for the last time, I flew to Los Angeles for the 2007 annual conference of the Association of Science-Technology Centers. Attended by nearly 2,000 delegates, this is the largest regular gathering of informal science education professionals and best place to get a sense of where the field is headed. It was my 17th year at the conference.

While I’ll leave a review of the conference to others, I would like to offer a few observations.

First of all, the topic of climate change was on everyone’s mind. Two years ago, intelligent design was part of many conversations. Last year, there really wasn’t a hot topic per se. In fact, ASTC’s campaign on global warming, called “IGLO,” was still new and struggling to gain traction.

This year, things were very different. Climate change was mentioned in almost every other conversation and at the highest levels. Even the after-dinner show at the conference banquet, generally a lighthearted event with local dance cloggers or an entertaining speaker, was devoted to a new high-energy, multimedia program on the poles and climate change, featuring live polar scientists and Andy Revkin, a well-published reporter from the New York Times who has covered the global warming beat for a long time. Dubbed “Polar Palooza,” the program was introduced by Walter Staveloz, who heads up ASTC’s IGLO project on global warming.

So what’s next?

Barring the unforeseen, this will be my last post to this blog. I will be writing up some observations on how European museums were representing the issue of global warming as of the summer of 2007. You can look for something by the end of the year – check for a free download.

I also plan to write an article and share a few thoughts at future conferences, as opportunities come up.

At the Sciencenter, I look forward to working together with our staff and its new Green Team to see how we can further reduce our carbon footprint, become more sustainable as an organization, and use our experience in science and education to help accelerate the international effort to reduce global warming and its impacts.

For those interested, here are a few statistics:

35 science-related museums in 10 countries visited

50 museums (all types) visited

155 pages of notes transcribed

8,000 photos catalogued

27,000 km traveled

3,500 kg of CO2 generated by the travel

$55.08 in associated CO2 offsets purchased (via

* * * * * * * *

I am thankful to everyone who has helped to make this tour possible. In addition to all of the wonderful museum people I met, who are far too numerous to list here individually, I would like to acknowledge the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Bonn for their financial support, the board of trustees of the Sciencenter of Ithaca, NY for granting me sabbatical leave with salary, Lara Kimber for not only filling in for me as executive director but also moving the organization forward in my absence, and the Deutsches Museum for hosting us in Munich.

I am grateful to my wife Nancy Trautmann for taking this adventure with me and providing so many good ideas and a regular sounding board along the way. Finally, I would like to close the loop by thanking her mother Ruth Morton, who is a constant source of inspiration to me and all who know her.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Grasping Climate Exhibition at the Nacka Nature School, near Stockholm, Sweden

The Nacka Nature School is one of about 80 nature centers funded by municipal governments throughout Sweden. The city of Stockholm and its surrounding towns alone support some 15 nature centers. The existence of these nature centers represents an interesting statement about the priority of the environment in Swedish government and society.

The Nacka Nature School serves 2,000 students annually via field trips and has a staff of 2 that operates with a budget of US $150,000. All school classes in Nacka (the funding municipality) may take a free, all-day field trip to the center each year, while schools from outlying areas pay a small fee.

The staff of the center had seen the travelling exhibition “Grasping Climate” when it appeared at the Museu­m of Science and Technology in Stockholm about 20 km away and thought it would be a good way to anchor a unit on sustainability they were planning for this school year. They asked their municipality to sponsor the exhibition for 4 months ($40 K plus shipping) and said they received immediate and enthusiastic approval.

“Grasping Climate” is a highly interactive exhibition on alternative energy that was developed and is now being toured by Teknikens Hus (a science center in Lulea, Sweden described earlier in this blog). Initially, visitors watch a 10-minute video, produced by Science North (a large science center in Sudbury, Canada) in which a cartoon sheep narrator introduces the science of global warming.

The exhibits are very intereactive and demonstrate various principals of alternative energy, including: solar power…

Wind power…

Wave power…

Hydro power…

and hydrogen power.

“Grasping Climate” also provides a few thought-provoking exhibits on transportation and personal actions, such as a comparison of the CO2 emission from cars, trains, and planes.

A Magic Planet (an exhibit consisting of a globe with an internal projector that can show images) cycles between day and night views of the world, the night view making an impression on visitors by showing a world that is remarkably well lit after sundown. In this image, you can see the US at night, with most of the eastern half mostly lit up.

The exhibition concludes with a series of 5 vertical Plexiglas tubes with a supply of pebbles and “what if” scenarios that invite visitors to make a personal commitment to reducing their energy consumption and CO2 emission by dropping a pebble into a tube corresponding to a particular action (such as reducing automobile travel).

Tom Tits Experiment in Sodertalje, Sweden

Tom Tits Experiment was frequently recommended as a favorite science center by nearly all who had visited it. The center is housed in an old brick factory building, located about 40 minutes by train from the center of Stockholm. It was well worth the effort to get there.

First, a bit about the name… According to legend, the name derives from a character in French history. Although the exact details are not known, Tom Tits is believed to have dressed as a clown and performed science demonstrations for the public at the base of the Eiffel Tower. There is also a 17th century book titled “Tom Tits Experiment” displaying interesting science phenomena, and the center has kept this tradition alive by publishing a number of books (mostly in Swedish) with hands-on experiments that people can do with simple, everyday materials.

The center reminded me of the early days of the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum except more so, with 4 floors of very interactive, home-brew quality exhibits in a brick firehouse. The aesthetic is simple: wood and everyday materials wherever possible and keep visitors as close as possible to the phenomena.

“Science is Everywhere” would be the best way to describe it, with small creative touches on floors, walls, and ceilings everywhere. For example, the tables in the cafĂ© have glass-topped boxes embedded in them with things like the amount of formula used by a baby or different types of grains, and even the cashier’s countertop is an educational exhibit on different types of beans as seen here,

while a window in a stairwell indicates its dimensions in mm so visitors can develop measurement sense.

A large outdoor science park covers about 10,000 m2 (the same area as the inside displays) and has a vast network of water exhibits, a huge centrifugal force carousel, and some great optical illusions and sound exhibits. The plantings were superb, with an amazing array of flowers and other plants everywhere.

The center also runs a highly successful pre-school for 60 children. This school has a rich environment, with many colorful rooms and lots of science, and it uses the exhibit areas in the science center as well. With a staff of 12, the school takes children between 7 am and 6 pm. Most children attend for 5-6 hours. While I was visiting, an organized group of leaders from other Swedish pre-schools was there for the day to learn about how this one works.

Tom Tits has a staffed workshop for the public (shown here), where visitors can construct various projects for a small materials fee.

In addition to its own exhibits, the center builds traveling exhibits; however, they are used primarily by schools and other non-museum venues. The center is also about to develop a series of interactive exhibits to be mounted permanently at various locations within the city.

Significantly, the organization itself has done much to operate according to its core values as they relate to sustainability.

For example, food waste is composted all year long with this device. Also, the center is currently seeking certification for sustainability in accordance with Swedish standards. A long-term goal is a significant reduction of its carbon footprint through renewable energy and changes in the use of transportation.

One of the lasting impressions was the creative way in which every possible opportunity to use everyday materials had been exploited. From an auditorium laid out as a periodic table...

to a chandelier made of bones in the human body area, this center is one of the richest learning environments out there.

Monday, October 8, 2007

National Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, Sweden

The National Museum of Natural History is a large and impressive museum in Stockholm, with some 10,000 m2 of exhibitions and 200 curators, researchers, and museum staff.

The entrance to the museum from the street is through a colorful and playful garden in the shape of a butterfly.

The museum mounted a major permanent exhibition on global warming in 2004 called “Mission: Climate Earth.” This exhibition, developed at a cost of about US $ 1 million, was inspired by a museum board member who is also a climate researcher and believed that the museum should stay ahead of the curve by bringing this topic to the public through a comprehensive exhibition, professionally designed and scientifically accurate.

The exhibition covers a number of aspects of global warming, including the difference between weather and climate, the geologic perspective on climate change, what individuals can do, and a sociological perspective on global warming.
The exhibition covers roughly 600 m2 and is primarily non-interactive, although a number of interactive exhibits have been added to highlight climate phenomena. Examples of interactive exhibits include several Exploratorium favoritos such as the tornado, turbulent orb, and water vapor ring. Several computer workstations cover topics such as El Nino, global temperature modeling, and calculating your carbon footprint.

A short but impressive multimedia presentation called “Eye of the Storm” plays in a well-designed theater located in the center of the exhibition. It impresses on visitors that major changes are coming and concludes with the question “Which path will you take?”

The exhibition is widely used by school groups, who can download the entire exhibition text and class worksheets from the museum’s website.

The museum has many other permanent natural history exhibitions. Two popular exhibitions involve dinosaurs and the 4.5-billion-year history of the Earth. A human body exhibition is perhaps the most widely used of all and is also the most interactive.
A particularly interesting temporary exhibition features the life and works of Carl Linnaeus, a Swede who developed the system of biological taxonomy still widely used today and whose 300th birthday is being celebrated this year.

One tidbit of administrative trivia for those who follow visitor data in museums: In 2004-5, the museum charged the equivalent of about $10 for an adult (18 years and up) ticket and hosted about 350,000 visitors. In 2006, the Swedish government decided that everyone should be able to visit the museum free, so admission fees were eliminated, and attendance jumped to 700,000. This year (2007), the government dropped the free admission program, and the museum went back to an adult charge of about $7. In response, attendance has dropped, despite the poor weather that has had many museums in Europe seeing record attendance. The museum is now hoping for about 400,000 visitors this year. This unplanned experiment might be of interest to museums that are experimenting with admission fees.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm sports over 70 museums, a number of whick involve science in some way. The Museum of Science and Technology is one of these major science-related museums and was inspired (as was the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry in the U.S.) by the Deutsches Museum (the directors having been colleagues).

Founded in 1924 and moved to its current location in the 1930s, the entry gallery to the museum has collections on power and transportation, anchored by a huge steam engine that staff members can operate (though not with steam). Included in this gallery are cars, planes, bicycles, motorcycles and some Swedish engines, hydropower turbines, and related hardware.

One corner of the main entry gallery leads down to a mine exhibition, which takes visitors through the history of mining in Sweden, some of the major mining products, the smelting process, and products made from Swedish ores.

Other older galleries include a machine shop with overhead leather belt-driven equipment.

Nearby is a room devoted to Swedish inventions, including the Crescent-type adjustable wrench, the centrifugal cream separator used on farms, and the first taxi-fare meter.

One room highlights the work of Christopher Polhem, an early industrialist and engineer who developed a factory using mass production in the late 17th century and then, as a teacher of technology, created an “alphabet” of 80 mechanisms. He believed that a person could invent any conceivable machine using these mechanisms, and the museum has four cases of them, dating back 300 years (these are believed to be all that survive).

One gallery is devoted to Swedish women inventors and highlights a number of their devices, ranging from automobile seats that are more comfortable to a pocket defibrillator to an anti-rape belt that requires two hands to undo (presumably allowing the victim time to get away or strike the attacker).

A very popular area of interactive exhibits called “Teknorama” includes a number of hands-on favorites ranging from pulleys, levers, and gears, to the ubiquitous “Mind Ball.”

Although the museum does not have any current exhibits related to climate change, it hosted an interactive exhibit on alternative energy in the recent past called “Grasping Climate.” The exhibition was developed by Teknikens Hus in Lulea, Sweden and will be reviewed in a subsequent posting.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden

The Swedish Academy in the Old Town of Stockholm is home to the Nobel Museum, which celebrates the distinguished scientists and peacemakers who have won prizes in the five areas of Physics, Chemistry, Biology/Medicine, Literature, and Peace.

The museum is relatively small and quite doable. An entry exhibition area displays the history of the prize, while two amphitheaters show looping 3-4 minute videos of the lives of various prize winners and how they came to their creative ideas that led to their prize.

Overhead is a constantly moving display of all the Nobel Prize winners over the years.

A changing exhibit area had an exhibition of black and white photos called “Images of War and Peace,” with a number of poignant scenes from the two world wars.

An adjacent room had players and headphones for listening to audio clips of selected acceptance speeches and toasts made at award dinners.

Another room was devoted to the life and “The Famous Will” of Alfred Nobel, and a “cabinet of creativity” displayed a set of objects that inspired various creative ideas leading to prizes.

Being a Cornellian, I was excited to see two familiar objects in this cabinet: first, a Cornell dining plate, representing Richard Feynman’s early experience at the university during which he watched a student spinning a plate on his finger at one of the dining halls and observed a relationship between the wobble-frequency and the angular velocity that eventually led to his electron-spin theory and the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Also in this curio cabinet was a ear of corn, which formed the subject of Barbara McClintock’s research at Cornell that led to her Nobel prize in genetics. Both were among the dozen or so prize winners featured for their creativity in the dozen or so short videos that cycle in the amphitheaters.

The video clips were interesting in that they gave unusually candid insights into the lives and minds of several prize winners. However, in most cases these films would probably not inspire someone sitting on the career fence trying to decide whether to make a career in science. For example, an interview with Schroedinger revealed that the inspiration and equations that led to his famous wave equation were developed during a family vacation in Europe. When asked about this period of intense creativity, he indicated that he had to wear ear plugs because the talking and carrying on of his family had made it too difficult for him to concentrate on his work.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Nobel Peace Museum in Oslo, Norway

While most people probably think of the Nobel Museum as being at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, there is another Nobel Museum in Oslo devoted to the 5th prize – the Nobel Peace Prize – for which winners are selected in Norway.

The museum uses a high-tech (and in some cases a normal-tech) combination of art, science, and technology to provide an inspired overview of the prize, its goals, some of the impacts that its winners have made, and a biography of the man who made it all possible with “The Famous Will.” Many of the stories are interesting, such as this sad vignette about Charlie Chaplin.

A temporary exhibit area near the entrance currently has a series of large screens with constantly changing vignettes that set a tone for the rest of the museum.

Upstairs, one room has an eerie exhibit consisting of a series of waist-high Plexiglas rods that glow bluish at their tips and display among them several dozen small screens with pictures of Nobel Peace Prize winners. When you approach a screen, it automatically brings up a short description of that person’s contribution to world peace.

A small, quiet room in one corner contains a large red (but otherwise blank) book on a stand. A sensor detects pages being turned, and a projector then projects on the blank pages the story of Alfred Nobel’s life. Like a touch screen, a circular cursor can be dragged to various items on each page, which then brings up additional details. It’s slick and works reasonably well. It’s a good example of an exhibit where technology can provide an additional level of interactivity, interest, and layered information; but if more than one person wants to use the exhibit at a time, it can be a frustrating experience for everyone.

Everything about this museum was focused on the mission, including the staff t-shirts, which say "Peace at Work" on the backs.

Another popular interactive exhibit consists of a wall with many screens and sliders that select vignettes and other information on Nobel Peace Prize winners. The screens overlap at times, and slowly cascading letters that form words sometimes seem more like gimmickry. But it’s hard not to be inspired by the stories of what prize winners have accomplished in their quest for making a difference in the world.

A Fred (Norwegian for "peace") Quilt created by hundreds of school children made a fitting end to the visit.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Universeum in Gothenburg, Sweden

Universeum, which opened in 2001, is located in a dramatic structure that received an architectural award for the best building design in Sweden since 1950. Conveniently located near a major public transit station, it is next door to a large amusement park and expects to host 500,000 visitors this year. This photo shows the watercourse along a sidewalk leading to the building in the background.

Universeum, like many European museums, is seeing record attendance in 2007, which it attributes in large part to the prolonged rainy weather.

Inside, the center has two major and very different parts. One part is devoted to biology and includes a stream-to-ocean environment and a large rain forest environment. On the other side of a huge glass wall are several floors of physical science exhibits.

To begin their journey through the biology section, visitors first take an inclined lift up 30 vertical meters to the top of a winding path that starts with the plants and aquatic fauna associated with a mountain stream environment in Sweden.

Long, waist-height, open-topped aquaria extend along the winding path and gradually transition to lower-elevations and a marine environment that transitions to a below-the-surface setting that includes a circular tunnel with sharks and other large fish. There is also a touch tank, shown here, where visitors can hold marine invertebrates when staff are present.

Galleries in this part of the building include terrestrial animals such as a popular exhibit called “Deadly Beauties,” with displays of colorful, but poisonous, snakes and other animals. These displays are beautifully designed and well maintained.

Visitors can then go through a large, multi-level rain forest environment that includes extensive displays of plants plus a few animals. Warm rain drips continuously in air with 100% relative humidity, and the effect is dramatic. These two areas are used extensively for school group visits, with generally involve a guided tour with extensive questions and answers between the staff and visiting students.

The transition to the physical sciences on the other side of the building is abrupt. Exhibits here are grouped in various thematic areas and include “Dig It!” (making music with computers in a series of stations in glass rooms, as shown in the photo).

“Brash, Bang, Boom” is an exhibition on automotive safety (sponsored by Volvo, of course, which is based in Gothenburg). In this exhibit, visitors learn that their speed in a 30 km/hr crash is equivalent to jumping from a height of 3.5 meters. They can experience this by climbing the stairs and jumping to the mat below. At 70 km/hr, it's like jumping from an 8-story building. A scale nearby weighs visitors in Kg and also shows the equivalent "mass" at 30, 50, and 70 km. This exhibition extends the mission of the science center in an interecting direction by combining the science with a public service. Every Thursday, police spend 2 hours at the exhibition talking with visitors about safety, and a workshop for teens uses an alcohol-related scenario to encourage critical thinking about the consequences of drinking and driving.

“Puls” is a popular series of physical challenges related to healthy hearts, although most visitors seem simply to enjoy the physical challenges more than the science. A weather center (under construction), a space flight and astronomy area, and several other single exhibits (included whisper dishes that reflect off a wall-mounted disk because there is no path within the exhibit area that is long enough align the two dishes axially.)

The building, as part of its design, incorporates a number of interesting sustainability-related features. One of them is a dual drainage system that separates toilet wastes into two streams and treats the liquid portion inside the building.

The center has recently received major funding to develop an exhibition on climate change. It is still early in the process, and the major thematic areas and individual exhibits are in the concept development stage. However, the core message will likely revolve around helping visitors to think critically about their personal actions and to make more-informed decisions about their individual and collective impacts on the global environment.