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Innovative City Science Exhibit Planned for Worcester’s EcoTarium

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


An image from the EcoTarium's Cyberchase Exhbit, an exhibit which, like the upcoming City Science, was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The EcoTarium, New England's leading science and nature center, will soon house one of the most unique exhibits in the country thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). A team of researchers led by Robert L. Ryan, professor of landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, has been awarded a $250,000 grant from the NSF to integrate the science of urban systems into the new "City Science" exhibit at the EcoTarium museum in Worcester. Additional partners include Worcester’s Clark University and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The collaboration with exhibit designers and science educators at the EcoTarium, New England's leading science and nature center, is funded as a pilot grant from the NSF's Advancing Informal STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Learning program.

"This grant allows us to work with researchers to bring incredible science to our visitors," said EcoTarium President Joseph Cox. "We will create innovative ways to engage our visitors in conversations about building a better city and share this exciting work with science museums nationwide."

Project Details

The project, "From the Lab to the Neighborhood: An Interactive Living Exhibit for Advancing STEM Engagement with Urban Systems in Science Museums," will develop prototype exhibits about the science people encounter in their everyday lives, but rarely stop to consider: What keeps our buildings and bridges standing? What is the hidden infrastructure that brings water in and out of our houses? What is a better solution for a problem road intersection? How do trees affect temperature -- and our air conditioning bills?

Using Worcester as a backdrop, the exhibit will explore the connections between cities and the people, plants, and animals that live in them. With hands-on experiment stations, visitors of all ages will discover these connections from different perspectives in a city -- above, below, and street-level.

Student Participation

"From the Lab to the Neighborhood" breaks new ground by asking museum visitors, including school children, to participate in the social science research process, an area that has received less attention in many science museums. The project builds on existing urban ecology research conducted by the UMass/Amherst environmental conservation department.

"I'm pleased that this federal grant will allow the EcoTarium to further their innovative work and harness local partnerships to bring cutting-edge research on urban ecology to a wide range of people," said Congressman Jim McGovern. "This program will be used as a model for others across the country, enhancing the EcoTarium's reputation as a hub for pioneering scientific education."

Co-principal investigator Colin Polsky, Associate Professor of Geography at Clark University, will provide technical assistance and engage Clark students in some of the prototyping activities.

"This exciting award serves as another illustration of how Clark University's LEEP program can create 21st-century learning opportunities for undergraduate students," said Professor Polsky. "Here, a cutting-edge NSF research project will be brought into the classroom, and students will have the opportunity to shape the outcome. In the process, students will develop valuable team-building, communication, and project-management skills. The goal is to develop students' abilities to manage complexity and uncertainty alongside their knowledge of urban ecology."

Connecting Students and Teachers

The project will also integrate an NSF-funded K-12 urban ecology curriculum into the exhibit, using the results from the prototyping to inform new curriculum modules. Led by project team member Eric Strauss of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, this new curriculum will let science teachers and their students try out the exhibit prototypes as they are being developed and learn about the scientific research process. Ultimately, these lessons will allow urban children to see the city around them as an ecology laboratory.

National Impact on Museums

"From the Lab to the Neighborhood" is seen as a pilot for a national model to bring urban ecology research to science museums across the country. It will bring together staff from six other science museums in California and New England to review the exhibit prototypes, and to discuss how their museums can develop new urban ecology exhibits.

This pilot project builds on preliminary City Science exhibit planning already conducted by the EcoTarium staff and focuses on trying out these new exhibit ideas with visitor feedback. This study will inform the permanent exhibition, for which the EcoTarium is currently pursuing funding to complete.


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