Sign for the EcoTarium's City Science exhibit

Clark collaborates with the EcoTarium on prototyping 'City Science' Exhibits

Students work with museum staff and young patrons to develop exhibits on bird habitats, neighborhoods
May 8, 2014

Where do city birds nest? What is your neighborhood made of, and how does it work? How do you feel when you look at your lawn? These questions are the focus of some of the museum exhibits on urban ecology Clark University students are preparing with the help of the young visitors at Worcester's EcoTarium, thanks to funding from a National Science Fund (NSF) grant.

The exhibits, which are part of the program "From the Lab to the Neighborhood: An Interactive Living Exhibit for Advancing STEM Engagement with Urban Systems in Science Museums," will become part of a new permanent exhibit, "City Science," at the EcoTarium, and could remain on the Worcester museum's floor for up to a decade. More importantly, the exhibit is a pilot for a national movement to bring urban ecology education to science museums.

This spring, Associate Professor of Geography Colin Polsky, Co-Principal Investigator of the NSF grant (along with researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles), led 12 students on a mission to cull through current urban ecological research and translate it into exhibit prototypes.

Ali Knopf '15 and Jeremy Marshall '16 staff the "Magnetic Neighborhood" exhibit with their partners from UMass Amherst

Ali Knopf '15 and Jeremy Marshall '16 staff the "Magnetic Neighborhood" exhibit with their partners from UMass Amherst

The groundbreaking program asks museum visitors (i.e. school children) to participate in the social science research process, so, in January, Professor Polsky's class, comprising 11 undergraduates and Geography Ph.D. student Will Collier, had to be trained how to identify evidence of children exhibiting science process skills.

"We use these data to help us create the next iteration of the prototypes," said Betsy Loring, director of exhibits at the EcoTarium. "It's important to watch for new visitor behaviors."

The Clark students staffed the exhibit prototypes during February and April vacation weeks, and collected critical data while watching the young visitors use their displays.

In addition to time spent observing their target audience, the students logged hours presenting to their peers and to the other academic partners, and collaborating in small and medium-sized groups. The students presented several times to museum staff, and became quite accustomed to receiving feedback, brainstorming and working to refine their ideas based on their partner's extensive knowledge of exhibit design.

"Each exhibit prototype can go through a dozen iterations in a matter of weeks," said Loring.

Amanda Duquenoy '17 and Alex Merriam '17 observe a museum patron at the "Maps as Models" exhibit prototype

Amanda Duquenoy '17 and
Alex Merriam '17 observe a
museum patron at the
"Maps as Models" exhibit

Throughout this process, flexibility and the ability to incorporate feedback is paramount.

Professor Polsky says the partnership has been mutually beneficial, and noted the students are helping to characterize something few if any researchers have studied to date: the perspectives of future city-dwellers.

"The research that is conducted on how people value urban environments and what they like and don't like about such environments often does not include the perspective of children," he said.

Eliza Lawrence '14, a student in the class said, "As the world continues to populate cities it is important for us not only to think about city science and urban ecology, but to find ways to teach future generations this information as well."

Professor Polsky said that this summer the group will share what they've learned with area teachers and use the results from the prototyping to inform new curriculum modules. Over the next few months, the group will take the work they've done for the younger children and adapt it for an older audience.

Sarah MacLachlan '14 and Savannah Sanford '17 watch as museum patrons guess city bird habitats

Sarah MacLachlan '14 and
Savannah Sanford '17 watch as museum patrons guess city bird habitats

Also this summer, the class's TA, Will Collier, will continue his work at the museum, along with Alex Merriam and Ali Knopf, who have received LEEP Fellowships to serve as Exhibit Department interns. Each will focus on taking a single prototype through more iterative stages of development.

"The cutting-edge research we're doing with the EcoTarium is a perfect example of the kind of innovative learning opportunities Clark is incorporating into its curriculum through Liberal Education and Effective Practice (LEEP)," said professor Polsky. "Not only are our students applying the knowledge they've gained in their field, they are learning to be adept at translating and transferring that knowledge while simultaneously acquiring critical skills needed to succeed in tomorrow's workplace."

Clark's work with the EcoTarium will continue through 2015.

"We've been impressed with how enthusiastically the students have embraced the prototyping process. They've been thoughtful and professional and it's always good to bring in a fresh perspective to the exhibits," said Loring.

Betsy Loring of the EcoTarium (left) and professor Colin Polsky (third from left) look on as student observe rats that could make up an exhibit

Betsy Loring of the EcoTarium (left) and professor Colin Polsky (third from left) look on as student observe rats that could be used in an exhibit

A complete list of students involved in the collaboration with the EcoTarium follows: Max Boenhert '17, James Caneff '14, William Collier Ph.D. '18, Jessica Cusworth '16, Amanda Duquenoy '17, Will Heikes '16, Alexandra "Ali" Knopf '15, Eliza Lawrence '14, Sarah MacLachlan '14, Jeremy Marshall '16, Alexander Merriam '17 and Savannah Sanford '17.

About the EcoTarium

EcoTarium is New England's leading science and nature center, an indoor-outdoor experience dedicated to inspiring a passion for science and nature in visitors of all ages. The center offers a museum building with three floors of interactive exhibits and is home to live animal habitats, interpretive nature trails through forest and meadow, the Alden Digital Planetarium, a tree canopy walkway (seasonal) and a narrow-gauge railroad.

The EcoTarium, located at 222 Harrington Way in Worcester, Mass., is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays 12 to 5 p.m. Admission is $14 for adults, $8 for children 2-18, $10 for seniors 65+ and students with ID. WOO card holders receive $2 off one adult admission and $1 off one planetarium show. Parking is free.

About the National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…" With an annual budget of about $7.0 billion (FY 2012), we are the funding source for approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America's colleges and universities. In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing.

Founded in 1887 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Clark University is a liberal arts-based research university addressing social and human imperatives on a global scale. Nationally renowned as a college that changes lives, Clark is emerging as a transformative force in higher education today. LEEP (Liberal Education and Effective Practice) is Clark's pioneering model of education that combines a robust liberal arts curriculum with life-changing world and workplace experiences. Clark's faculty and students work across boundaries to develop solutions to complex challenges in the natural sciences, psychology, geography, management, urban education, Holocaust and genocide studies, environmental studies, and international development and social change. The Clark educational experience embodies the University's motto: Challenge convention. Change our world.

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Angela Bazydlo - Marketing and Communications - Clark University