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Collaborating with museums on climate science


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Why we work with museums

Museums can help to connect people with science in an informal setting. Natural history museums, planetariums, science and technology centers, aquariums, and other similar venues can all serve as places where the public can learn about climate science and also about how scientific research is done. Today's museums and science centers both educate and entertain, and in the process they contribute toward a more scientifically literate public that is better informed and more comfortable when dealing with the kinds of science-related issues one encounters in everyday life. Good museums exhibits can help to demystify the science, inspire visitors with the science, and help them understand how how the work of science researchers impacts them and society.

[Koshland sliding screen of climate model animations. photo credit: Bowman Design Group]

At the Koshland Science Museum in Washington DC, a sliding plasma screen reveals surface air temperature projections for the next century based on climate model results from NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Visitors learn that while virtually all climate models predict that temperature will continue to rise during the 21st century, the specific amount and details of regional variations of the projected warming vary somewhat from model to model.
Photo courtesy Koshland Science Museum.

But why do several of my NOAA/GFDL colleagues and I devote time to collaborating with museums when that time could be spent pursuing our research projects? There are several factors that I feel make collaborating with museums a very worthwhile pursuit.

1)  A Great Division Of Labor: It can be a big challenge for us researchers to translate into widely understandable terms some of the climate science facts that are relevant to the public. Our training and expertise is in the science - especially in the nitty-gritty details - but that does not mean we know how best to distill and convey that information to non-specialists. Museum folks know their audience, and they know what works and what does not work in a museum environment regarding the choice of words, pictures, animations, etc. to tell a scientific story. Additionally, their experience (and usually open-minded patience) comes in handy when dealing with researchers who tend to converse in scientific geek-speak instead of more understandable language. Unlike the typical media interview where a scientist is expected to have a pithy sound-bite or two at the ready, working with museums provides an opportunity to develop concise and meaningful ways to convey scientific information, both verbally and visually, in a collaborative environment. In this way, the strengths of both the climate science researchers and the museum educators are used to the greatest advantage.

2) The Multiplier Effect: Class field trips and family outings to science centers provide opportunities for a "communications multiplier effect", as teachers and parents acquire information that they can in turn convey to their students and children. And of course, it can work in the other direction, as tech-savvy and scientifically curious young visitors share with others the information they gather exploring earth science exhibits. This is one way the impact of an exhibit can extend beyond those who visit a museum.

3) The Informal - Formal Education Connection: The development of teacher resource materials in conjunction with a museum exhibit can also extend an exhibit's impact. (A school classroom is an example of a formal education setting and a museum is an informal education setting.) Serving as a reviewer of lesson plans and other K-12 education materials that may be developed as part of an exhibit is another way earth science researchers can contribute to advancing climate literacy. Materials designed for the classroom can be aligned with national and state educational standards and climate science literacy principles (see the Climate Literacy entry in the sidebar to the right for more information.)

4) A Learning Experience For Us: Working with museum curators and exhibit designers can prove to be a valuable learning experience in how to translate a fairly complex concept into a simpler, more accessible form. A key factor is how to simplify a scientific topic without over-simplifying it to the point of distorting the message or leaving it open to easy misinterpretation. From our museum collaborations, we scientists can pick up tips and tricks for producing more effective descriptions, graphics, and visualizations we'll use in our scientific publications, conference presentations, policy maker briefings, and outreach activities.

4) Miscellaneous Reasons: Let's see... there's the benefits of showing the NOAA flag to raise awareness about the research we do. (Ask someone to name a 4 letter federal science agency that starts with N and ends with A and see how rarely the answer is NOAA.) Also there's the simple altruistic goal of trying to do something to help create a better informed public or even maybe light a spark in a young person's mind so that he or she considers a career in science. And I should mention that working with museums can just be fun?

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[Science On A Sphere image digitally edited to display GFDL CM2.1 temperature field]

This digitally edited photo shows surface air temperature change patterns simulated by the GFDL CM2.1 climate model displayed on Science On A Sphere (SOS).


  • Go to NOAA's main Science On A Sphere project web site at http://sos.noaa.gov/ to learn lots more about SOS, including information about the hardware, the animation catalog, installation locations, news items, and more.

  • A 21 minute long narrated video showing SOS in ESRL's Planet Theater is available for download [mpeg4 format, 720x480 pixels, 84MB]

  • To learn more about NOAA's Office of Education initiatives, including competitions related to developing new earth system science content for SOS and spherical display systems in general, go to http://www.oesd.noaa.gov/

  • The story of how NOAA's SOS owes its start to a beach ball and other SOS tid bits are covered in the article Science All Around: NOAA's Science on a Sphere
[diagram of Science on a Sphere installation]
GFDL & Science On A Sphere

Science On a Sphere (SOS) is a room sized, global display system that uses computers and video projectors to display animated data onto the outside of a 68 inch diameter sphere. SOS was developed at NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder, Colorado, and the Science On A Sphere project continues to be headquartered there. Both the ESRL and GFDL research laboratories are part of NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR).

Using NOAA's collective experience and knowledge of the Earth's land, oceans, and atmosphere, Science On a Sphere enhances informal educational programs in science centers, universities, and museums across the country and internationally. SOS systems currently are installed in more than two dozen locations, and the list is growing.

Having first heard about and then seen the power of SOS as it grabs people's attention with the Wow Factor of its engaging display, we here at GFDL have joined the SOS bandwagon. Today, in several museums you can view some GFDL global climate model results that have been converted into Science On A Sphere animations. They include animations of climate change-induced variations in sea ice concentrations and surface air temperatures, as simulated by the GFDL CM2.1 global climate model.

March 2010 saw the release of a pair of 8-minute long Science on a Sphere films produced as a collaboration between GFDL scientists and three museums. In Forecast: Tropical Cyclone, the science of hurricanes is described and illustrated in a production led by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The Science Museum of Minnesota took the lead in producing a program called The Flow: Currents and Climate, that presents the ocean's role in climate. The Maryland Science Center is handling the creation of of support materials and methods to adapt the two SOS programs for interactive presentation by museum staff. This effort is funded in part by a grant from NOAA's Office of Education.

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