ESRL Quarterly Newsletter - Fall 2009

Exploring Earth

NOAA-museum partnership aims to engage educators, visitors, scientists, more

Simulation of an airborne toxin in Fort Worth, Texas 15 minutes after the release.
Simulation of an airborne toxin in Fort Worth, Texas 30 minutes after the release.

Top: ESRL’s Tim Schneider makes it “rain,” to show Exploratorium staff how a raindrop disdrometer works (photo by Barb DeLuisi, NOAA). Bottom: ESRL’s Russ Schnell explains rooftop instruments to the Exploratorium’s Thomas Humphrey, with Mary Miller at right (photo by Rhonda Lange, NOAA).

Planet Earth won’t fit on a tabletop exhibit at a science museum—even at the seemingly magical Exploratorium in San Francisco. So Exploratorium staff spent a week at the Earth System Research Laboratory in August, brainstorming with researchers about how to convey system science to the public in an engaging way.

“This visit has been incredibly stimulating, and also humbling,” said Mary Miller, online media producer for the Exploratorium and director of a new educational partnership between NOAA and the Exploratorium. “There’s this amazing sense of mission and responsibility,” Miller said. “NOAA scientists are … just so interested in having the public understand what they do.”

In July, NOAA and Exploratorium staff announced a five-year partnership to co-develop interactive exhibits, online learning experiences, professional development workshops, and more. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and Exploratorium Executive Director Dennis Bartels made the announcement on the San Francisco pier where the Exploratorium will move within five years. During a brownbag lunch at ESRL, Miller described the scene: “What I really loved was that Dr. Lubchenco said ‘This is going to be so cool!’ ”

Exploratorium staff visited ESRL most recently, but have also toured NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and smaller NOAA offices in California, and they’re planning other trips.

The Exploratorium, a “museum of science, art, and human perception,” has long excelled at developing hands-on, experiential exhibits, said Exploratorium senior scientist Thomas Humphrey. Visitors can swirl up a tornado from rising mist or investigate the motion of spinning discs. Now, Humphrey said, the museum’s exhibit staff have been challenged to develop a new approach to communicating environmental and Earth system science: Perhaps by instrumenting the museum with state-of-the-art NOAA equipment and letting visitors explore data through visualizations. Or giving visitors access to real-time greenhouse gas and pollution data collected at NOAA’s nearby tall tower sites. Or establishing a two-way video connection between NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer and the museum.

The latter project is already in the works: Exploratorium staff are creating an online presence for the Okeanos, so ship scientists can highlight new discoveries in short video clips, blogs, tweets, and other modes.

In Boulder, Miller, Humphrey, Exploratorium Associate Director Robert Semper, artist Susan Schwartzenberg, and program and project coordinator Kate O’Donnell spoke with dozens of NOAA scientists about their work and ideas.

Eric Hakathorne in ESRL’s Global Systems Division discussed his experience using new media—including the virtual world Second Life—to educate the public. John Miller and Russ Schnell of the Global Monitoring Division discussed NOAA’s role as the atmosphere’s accountant: ESRL’s monitoring programs track the ups and downs of critical greenhouse gases, ozone-depleting substances, and other atmospheric constituents.

Susan Solomon of the Chemical Sciences Division and ESRL Director Sandy MacDonald said they hoped the Exploratorium could help NOAA communicate more clearly about climate change. “This problem humanity is facing is more important than anything out there,” Mac- Donald said.

ESRL scientists also spoke about research into California’s atmospheric rivers, which deliver vital water resources to the state but pose a critical flood risk. Exploratorium staff were delighted by the group’s raindrop disdrometers, which measure the size distribution of raindrops— important in forecasting floods and debris flows.

“We’re thinking about something called ‘Anatomy of a Raindrop,’ “ Miller said. “We’ll definitely be continuing to talk with that group.”

This fall, the Exploratorium and NOAA will set up a private blog site, where staff from either side of the collaboration can pitch ideas and comment on them.

Ongoing Collaborations

Long before signing an official partnership, Exploratorium staff were working informally with NOAA scientists and their academic colleagues to communicate about fascinating and important field work. Ice Stories: Dispatches from Polar Scientists is an Exploratorium web site that highlights some of those collaborations. Museum staff train researchers to use multi-media tools, from video production and editing to storytelling and blogging. Trained scientists then use those skills to file dispatches from the field. NOAA Corps Officer Nick Morgan (ESRL Global Monitoring Division) will file dispatches on Ice Stories this year, from NOAA’s South Pole Observatory.