The Thrill of Science

A new exhibit taps kids’ curiosity about natural phenomena.

On a recent trip to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, a gaggle of grade-schoolers stared agog at the base of a 40-foot-high swirling tornado, a father snapped pictures of a rising hot-air balloon, and a couple stood beneath a 20-foot-diameter Tesla coil, waiting for lightning to strike again. The scene at Science Storms, the museum’s new permanent exhibit, is a far cry from the ephemera-based displays and uninspired kiosks that have become fixtures at many science shows. Opened in March, this 26,000-square-foot interactive display aims to spark children’s interest in science by immersing them in the brilliant spectacle of natural phenomena like lightning, tornados, avalanches, and tsunamis.

The brainstorming for the exhibit began in 2003, when the museum assembled a task force of 35 trustees, educators, designers, and scientists to explore the best ways to teach basic scientific principles. “Kids are kind of born scientists, but they get less and less interested in science and technology as time goes on,” says Jack Pascarosa, a principal at Evidence Design, in Brooklyn. “We were really looking for a way to try and start reversing that.” He and his partner, Shari Berman, were initially brought in to facilitate the discussion and were later hired to execute the final program. Rather than reinforcing the perception of science as a set of dry facts, Evidence wanted to convey the spirit that drives scientific inquiry—the human desire to understand one’s environment—and the thrilling process of discovery. “We wanted to break the stereotype of nerds in lab coats tinkering away by themselves, and get people more interested in what scientists really do,” Pascarosa says. Accompanying every natural phenomenon is a documentary film about a scientist who studies it. The movies, projected onto big-screen displays, bring an emotional, human aspect so rarely seen in science exhibits.

Walking through Science Storms is like being transported to a dreamscape where the most fearsome natural events are brought together in a strangely cohesive experience. The effect is achieved through the careful choreography of lighting, graphics, and imposing installations, which were meticulously worked out during an extensive prototyping phase. A 30-foot-long wave tank invites visitors to customize and lauch a tsunami on touch-screen consoles and then watch as it breaks against two different shorelines. A high-speed camera captures the event, which can be replayed in slow motion. By scanning their museum tickets, budding scientists can record the data for review on a home computer.

“We picked the sexiest aspects of science, because in a way that’s how you get people excited about a subject,” Pascarosa says. “People don’t get excited about a football game because they like weightlifting. They get excited about the drama of the game, the challenge, and the athleticism.” At the avalanche display, old and young alike are mesmerized by a giant spinning wheel filled with cascading granules before they move on to an experiment that measures the distribution of stress in granular materials. Similarly, if children’s early encounters with science are fun, the organizers hope, they’ll be more likely to sweat through physics. “If you’re going to get kids and the public at large more interested in science, you have a better chance by showing them the best parts first,” Pascarosa says, “and then let them discover the hard work later.”

Web extra: Check out this video of Science Storms in action.

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