Regional Planning Faculty Receive $250K NSF Grant for ‘City Science’ Exhibit at Worcester’s EcoTarium

October 23, 2013

A team of researchers led by Robert L. Ryan, landscape architecture and regional planning, has been awarded a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to integrate the science of urban systems into the new City Science exhibit at the EcoTarium museum in Worcester.

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 that explore the complex interconnections between human and natural systems, using the city as a laboratory for informal learning.

The collaboration with exhibit designers and science educators at the EcoTarium, the second largest science museum in Massachusetts with over 130,000 visitors per year, is funded as a pilot grant from the NSF’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program.

“From the Lab to the Neighborhood” builds upon the team’s existing urban ecology research led by Paige Warren, environmental conservation department, which has explored the implications of land use change and urban greening on natural and human systems in metropolitan Boston through a series of urban ecology studies and planning scenarios. This new project at the EcoTarium will integrate these research results into the exhibits and allow museum visitors, including school children, to participate in social science research process, an area that has received less attention in many science museums.

Some of the planned exhibits include a Neighborhood Design Area that allows visitors to create their ideal neighborhood, an Urban Biodiversity Area in which visitors compare birds they see on EcoTarium grounds to those in less forested portions of the city and learn about other aspects of biodiversity, and a Land-Use/Land-Cover Change Area where visitors may explore the effects of changes in tree and building cover on people, such as impacts on air quality and the urban heat-island.  The exhibits will also engage visitors in applying the scientific process to thinking about urban planning alternatives that promote a more sustainable future, and integrate their perceptions into the project team’s ongoing research about public perceptions of innovative urban planning strategies.

The project will also integrate an NSF-funded K-12 urban ecology curriculum into the exhibits, and will use 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 enable science teachers and children from local schools to try out the exhibit prototypes as they are being developed and increase their understanding of scientific processes. Ultimately, these lessons will allow urban children to see the city around them as an ecology laboratory.

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

“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 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.