Cities are carved out of the environment, creating a phenomenon blurring the line between urban infrastructure and the natural ecology it is replacing — or frequently displacing.
Last month, the EcoTarium launched a new permanent exhibit exploring how cities maintain their infrastructure while preserving the natural communities that live in and around them.
Aptly titled City Science, the 2,500-square-foot space aims to take the concepts of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) education and apply them against the backdrop of the museum’s Worcester hometown.
“City Science is the EcoTarium’s most innovative exhibit to date,” said EcoTarium President Joseph P. Cox. “It engages visitors of all ages in discovering the multilayered science, nature, and engineering stories that are happening all around us every day.”
The exhibit turns the EcoTarium’s middle floor into a hands-on investigation lab focused on urban science and ecology. It offers seven thematic areas comprising 27 separate interactive activities — from insect explorations to a multiplayer computer program on noise pollution — that aim to engage people in the “science you live.”
In building City Science, museum staff challenged themselves to expand beyond its core audience of families and implement techniques, activities, and experiences that all visitors can engage with fully. The measures — from difficulty levels at a traffic control simulator to a mapping experience that challenges individuals around spatial awareness — in turn create a variety of dynamics with those who visit.
“My favorite is, for whatever reason, the traffic [interactive which] causes the parents to heckle the children, which is normally a good thing,” said Betsy Loring, the organization’s director of exhibits, “but when the kids create a huge traffic backup, the parents jump in.”
Visitors can also:
* Practice animal identification skills using infrared photos taken of the dozens of wild animals that roam the EcoTarium grounds each night.
* Create their ideal neighborhood and scan it to build upon urban planning research.
* Develop bird-watching skills and learn how to join the ranks of “citizen scientists.”
* Make engineering decisions as they construct a bridge over a lake and over a canyon to meet urban engineering challenges.
* Design an animal-friendly neighborhood by placing houses in ways that allow turtles to safely travel between their habitats.
* Meet the insects and animals that live in the city and find out how scientists observe and study them, and much more.
Going further, EcoTarium staff endeavored to create an immersive as well as interactive experience for guests. To this end, visitors will experience much of the exhibit alongside a 60-foot-long cityscape highlighting the buildings and spaces of Worcester. Visitors can search the cityscape for the science and engineering stories behind some of the city’s most recognized buildings.
The cityscape was designed by multidisciplinary artist Natalie Draz, who spent three months examining the city’s communities and architecture.
“The layering of the many skylines of Worcester fit the multi-faceted neighborhoods, creating a dynamic variety of viewpoints,” Draz said.
And despite the EcoTarium’s location within Worcester, featuring the city as the backdrop was not an immediate decision.
“We overall have exhibits on interesting destinations in New England,” Loring noted, “[so] we could have picked any city because the science really does apply.”
Deciding on Worcester came down to two elements: one, a sense of Worcester reclaiming its narrative; and two, the history of Worcester as a place of innovation.
“Worcester was an old industrial city, but it wasn’t a mill city because it didn’t have a good river for that,” Loring explains. “It was an invention city and there were basically people investing in startups.”
Like a startup, City Science developed over time — seven years — and began through crowdsourcing ideas from high schoolers, volunteers, trustees, colleges, and more.
Subsequently positioned as a subcontract on a National Science Foundation grant, the EcoTarium was bolstered in coordinating with research scientists and institutions — including Clark University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst — to incorporate the latest science concepts into City Science. To integrate firm science concepts with its exhibit’s thematic home of Worcester, the EcoTarium then turned to governmental officials within the city.
Overall, the exhibit represents expert input from more than 50 people and organizations, generating roughly 70 exhibit ideas, which were then piloted through visitors.
“Prototyping is a process of standing farther and farther back from the exhibit,” explained Loring, elaborating further that this often literally requires staff to stand back and observe how visitors approach the interactives with various levels of supervision.
Opening the exhibit throughout its construction was as much a way to allow visitors to interact and provide feedback, as it was a means for the museum to function overall. Blocking off City Science wholesale would have restricted access to two restrooms, the museum’s lunch area, and administrative offices. But keeping the space open meant picking certain installations to be brought in during slow hours at the EcoTarium, as well as frequent 5 a.m. staff trips into the museum.
“So far the feedback is that [visitors] love it and they want to come back multiple times,” says Charlene Leith-Bushey, the EcoTarium’s manager of marketing and communications. “It’s almost like Disney World — you can’t do it all in one day.”