Raindrops Keep Falling on my Disdrometer

PSD partners with leading science museum to develop hands-on science exhibit

David Kingsmill demonstrates rain-measuring instruments to visitors at the Exploratorium in San Francisco

Barb DeLuisi and Katy Human, Fall 2010

One overcast day in July, ESRL Physical Sciences Division (PSD) researcher, David Kingsmill, watched raindrops falling on the rainbow-colored umbrella he held. This was a decidedly unusual rainstorm, however. The drops were not falling from the sky, but from a "rain chamber" outside the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Kingsmill and PSD colleagues are helping develop a new exhibit for the Exploratorium, an internationally acclaimed "museum of science, art and human perception."

Last year, NOAA signed on a five-year educational partnership to co-develop interactive exhibits, online learning experiences and professional development workshops for the learning institution.

"The Exploratorium provides a really good vehicle for delivering our message to the public," said Kingsmill. "People can literally get their hands on what we are doing at NOAA."

Shortly after the partnership was announced, Exploratorium staff visited ESRL, to learn more about NOAA science. Kingsmill and his colleagues wowed the museum's Mary Miller, Thomas Humphrey, and others with a laboratory demonstration of rain-measuring instruments used to study the connection between climate and weather in the water cycle. The group began brainstorming how these instruments—and the science on which they are based—might be presented to the public in a unique and engaging way.

During the next few months, staff from the two institutions shared a flurry of ideas. The teams got to thinking, "While it;s true that the weather can't be controlled in the real world, what about in a closet-sized exhibit?" The concept of a rain chamber was born.

The Exploratorium exhibit would employ rain gauges, which measure the volume of rain, and "disdrometers," which count individual raindrops and characterize their size and fall speed. Kingsmill consulted with exhibit fabricators on rain formation so that the rain produced by the chamber was realistic enough.

Another important part of developing the exhibit was demonstrating ESRL;s equipment to Exploratorium visitors and staff, to determine their interests and their baseline level of scientific knowledge before figuring out what kinds of visual aids would be helpful in an exhibit. Kingsmill and Allen White (also PSD), spent time at the Exploratorium this summer doing just that. Being right at the museum made it easy to test new ideas practically on the spot. For example, after conducting demonstrations of the instruments in one area of the museum, they realized that it made more sense to move them next to existing exhibits on fog and raindrops to provide visitors with additional context.

"One of the great things about working at the Exploratorium was each day saying, 'How'd it go?' and 'What can we do differently?'" said Kingsmill.

The culminating demonstration of the summer was an evaluation on Sept. 15. Kingsmill used new prototype visuals and a tabletop version of the rain chamber to engage visitors. Exploratorium staff observed from a distance and then interviewed people as they left the area. One finding was that most of the visitors could understand individual exhibits, but struggled to see how they were related to each other. That evaluation, and feedback from the other demonstrations, will help guide the development of a more permanent exhibit.

The rain chamber exhibit will continue to evolve for the next couple years as PSD and the Exploratorium design complementary pieces to help tell the story of rain and explain the connection between scientific instrumentation and big issues such as flooding and climate change.