Implementing Your Science Park
Sun, Wind, & Water:
The Promise of Science Parks
By Ronen Mir
There are many reasons why science parks are increasingly popular at science
centers worldwide. For the parent museum, the outdoor setting provides
plenty of space for exhibits, and flexibility in their arrangement. It
facilitates the educational use of natural resources like sun, wind, and
water, and it complements and expands existing indoor activities with
visually attractive, cost-effective outdoor correlates.
For visitors, science parks
mean open air, fun, and a relaxed learning environment. People enjoy the
opportunity to observe, feel, and enjoy the many scientific phenomena
that surround us. They appreciate that science can be learned in different
locations, not just in classrooms and laboratories.
Using the Outdoor Science Center
at my own museumSciTech Hands On Museum, in Aurora, Illinoisas
an example, this article will offer suggestions for those institutions
fortunate enough to have room for outdoor exhibits, as they start the
process of designing and implementing a science park.
Advance planning for a science
park involves many steps: evaluating available space, targeting potential
audiences, identifying project resources, and choosing partners.
Visitors enjoy exhibits at the Outdoor Science Center, part of an "Outdoor Science and Art Walk" developed by SciTech and community partners in Aurora, Illinois.
Photo courtesy SciTech
With a population of 150,000,
Aurora is Illinois' second-largest city. Located nearby are two
prominent government research facilities, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
(Fermilab) and Argonne National Laboratory. SciTech was established in
1988 by scientists from these labs. Along with other volunteers,
they developed some 250 hands-on indoor exhibits, including a unique Solar
Telescope that projects a 90-centimeter image of the sun into an interior
viewing area. Over time, the museum has become a fixture of the community,
attracting some 50,000 visitors a year and serving 30,000 more through
In 1999, SciTech embarked
on a program of indoor and outdoor expansion and renovation. The setting
of the museum, at the southern tip of an island where two branches of
the Fox River meet, is striking, but a pretty outdoor area facing the
water was being used as a staff parking lot. Why not turn it into an Outdoor
Science Center? Having been scientific director at the Clore Garden of
Science, in Israel, I was familiar with outdoor exhibits' power to attract
and inspire visitors.
In designing our project, we
were influenced by the Clore Garden, by India's extensive network of outdoor
science parks, and by U.S. science parks at the Sciencenter, Ithaca, New
York; the New York Hall of Science, Queens; and the St. Louis Science
Center, in Missouri. Our Outdoor Science Center incorporates elements
of each. We saw it as a place where families and groups could spend quality
time together, especially when the weather was too nice to stay indoors.
Because SciTech has limited
resources, we couldn't proceed alone. We needed partners, and one way
to get them was to fit our project into a larger community plan. We met
with representatives from the Aurora Public Arts Commission, Cordogan
Clark Architects, and Fermilab, and came up with the idea of an "Outdoor
Science and Art Walk," which would provide educational opportunities,
add interesting forms to the urban landscape, and enhance the image of
In Christian Tobin's Swimming Stones, water pumped through four carefully sliced 13-foot granite columns causes the upper stones to gyrate.
Photo by Michael Sawdey, 2000
This concept created a synergy
of dedicated people and more resources than we could have got by ourselves.
The partners identified 10 open spaces in downtown Aurora as sites for
potential outdoor exhibits. To date, three have been developed: the Outdoor
Science Center at SciTech; the 16-foot-diameter Sundial, located
in a historic neighborhood; and the Swimming Stones, a kinetic
stone-and-water sculpture in a downtown plaza. Funders include the Kane
County Forest Preserve, the Illinois Public Museum Program, Illinois First,
the National Science Foundation, the City of Aurora, and private donors.
Durable, accessible, and
Because science parks can be
expensive and complicated projects, we decided to implement our plan in
stages. The Outdoor Science Center was built over two years, with a few
exhibits introduced each summer.
Our first step was to do an
extensive evaluation of the site, considering modifications to ensure
proper drainage. We calculated the path the sun would follow during the
yearimportant for solar exhibitsand evaluated our water, electricity,
and communication needs. We thought about visitor comfort: Would our guests
have adequate drinking water, shade, and benches for resting?
Our final design called for exhibits to be arranged
on a 5,000-square-foot brick terrace complete with planters, picnic
tables, and sun shades. Museums that plan to host special events
might wish to include food-service facilities and outdoor lighting.
Durability was a primary concern, and investment in quality materials
is worth a lot after the fact. Noncorrosive metalsaluminum,
brass, stainless steelare excellent, if expensive to work.
High-quality oak weathers well over time, maintaining its look
and functionality. We went with aluminum and stainless steel.
The extra you spend on materials
may save you a lot in maintenance. That's not insignificant, because outdoor
exhibits exposed to the elements need at least as much attention as indoor
ones. Daily visual inspections and periodic tune-ups are critical for
ensuring the smooth operation of a science park.
Safety and accessibility are
equally important. Naturally, we wanted all visitors to be able to enjoy
the Outdoor Science Center in comfort and safety. According to the National
Program for Playground Safety, each year more than 200,000 children are
injured on U.S. playgrounds, with more than 75 percent of these injuries
due to falls.
Since there are no U.S. or
state codes pertaining specifically to outdoor science exhibits, the codes
for playground access, equipment, and surfaces are generally applied.
To ensure the security of exhibits and visitors, the Outdoor Science Center
is fenced, with controlled access. When visitors are using the exhibits,
trained staff members are on hand. A minimum age for users is posted.
Choosing outdoor exhibits
Choosing interactive outdoor
exhibits can be dauntingthere are so many options available. Possible
themes include botany, ecology, the environment, motion, music, optical
illusions, solar energy, sound, space exploration, water, waves, wind,
and more. For each, there might be several exhibits (see sidebar at end).
The Outdoor Science Center
at SciTech currently includes five extra-large exhibits and five smaller
ones. Themes include Motion, Waves, Music, and Solar and Water Energy.
Our large exhibits are permanently anchored to sturdy concrete pads covered
with safety-tested cushioning. Smaller exhibits can be moved into the
museum for winter usage.
Our signature exhibit is the
45-foot-tall Weather Wave, which allows visitors to create vertical standing
waves. Two decorative vanes on top show the wind's strength and direction.
The Weather Wave is visible for a long distance. When it was first built,
people used to stop their cars on the bridge to get a better look. It
got us a lot of media coverage.
The Giant Lever consists of
a ski-lift-type bench hanging at the end of a horizontal 33-foot pole.
The pole rests on a fulcrum point with a ratio of 1:3. Visitors sit on
the bench, and, to lift them, their friends pull on chains attached to
the pole with ratios of 1:1, 1:2 and 1:3, thereby demonstrating the lever
Everyone who rides our Bicycle
on a Tightrope gets a firsthand experience of the center of gravity, as
the suspended weight keeps rider and bike stable. Our state senator rode
it at the Outdoor Science Center's dedication; he was so happy that he
decided to help fund the next stage.
A variation on the familiar yo-yo toy, the YouYo raises its delighted user high in the air.
Photo courtesy Sci Tech
One of our most popular exhibits
is the YouYo, an oversized inverted yo-yo. The flywheel representing the yo-yo mechanism
is mounted at the top. The user pulls the rope, propelling himself or
herself higher with each turn of the wheel. It takes practice, but once
you do it well, you can go as high as the limiting bar allows: in this
case, 13 feet off the ground.
Our fifth large exhibit is
the Coupled Swing. A single swing linked to a swinging 150-kilogram weight
demonstrates the energy transfer between coupled pendulums. The visitor
starts to swing, but gradually her motion slows, as the weight begins
to swing. The weight then slows down, "pushing" the visitor,
and the cycle repeats.
Among our smaller exhibits,
the Lithophone is a favorite of mine. This xylophone-like marble percussion
instrument has a range of one full octave. The acoustic properties of
the marble produce a clear resonating sound. Visitors play on it all day
Programming and evaluation
At one level, a science park
is a marvelous playground. Children certainly enjoy it that way. To enhance
their learning, we have developed programs centering on science themes
of ecology, environment, energy, and more. Story lines that incorporate
treasure hunts appeal to most audiences. A good outdoor educational activity
we have used is Bob Miller's work at the Exploratorium on light and shadows
Visitor responses to the Outdoor
Science Center have been favorable. School groups and families interact
enthusiastically with exhibits and report positive experiences. A number
of newspaper articles have given us positive publicity.
My own experience is that science
parks appeal to diverse audiences. All visitors seem to feel more relaxed
about experimenting outdoors; perhaps it's because they are not exposed
to the cultural messages a building may project. There is a need, however,
for more formal evaluation of outdoor science exhibit areas. A visitor-centered
process, with front-end research to assess what people know and are interested
in knowing, would assist in selection of themes. Summative evaluation
could look for changes in attitudes or understanding as a result of visitors'
The time is ripe for more science
centers to provide their visitors with outdoor experiences. Science exhibits
that engage children's bodies and minds whet young appetites for more.
Outdoor exhibit areas add an extra dimension to an indoor science center
and provide a challenging experience that complements the indoor visit.
Ronen Mir is executive director of SciTech Hands On Museum, in Aurora,
Illinois. A guest scientist at Fermilab, he also serves as a consultant
to science centers in the United States, South America, and Israel.
Organized by theme,
these are exhibits that have been used successfully outdoors in
science parks. For information on suppliers, contact the author
Heat tunnel: a half-white, half-black crawl-through pipe
that collects heat
Solar furnace: a parabolic mirror that concentrates the sun's
rays to a focal point
Solar water heater and photovoltaic cells: demonstrate alternative
Solar fountain: produces water height proportional to solar
Wind turbine: demonstrates wind power
Wind/weather vanes: show direction and speed
Bernoulli blowers/airplane wings: show lift
Water cannons: spin vanes or small turbines
Water turbines: engines to produce energy
Archimedes screw: raises water from a pond
Wave pools: generates waves in standing water
Dam: directs water flow
Rainbows: water sprinklers that generate full-circle rainbows
Water vortex: propeller in a water tank
Ecological pond: shows local fauna and flora
Meteorological station: measures weather
Recycling separators: paper, plastic, metal and glass sorters
Landfill models: for experimentation
Physics and Mechanics
Torsion wave generator: produces a standing wave
Giant lever: demonstrates leverage ratios and fulcrum point
Slides: straight, cycloid, and other shapes
Inverted Yo-Yo: raises the user
Gyro wheel: demonstrates gyroscope forces
Pulley system: demonstrates leverage ratios
Coupled swings: transfer of energy between two pendulums
Coriolis carousel: transfers a ball across a spinning carousel
Seesaw: allows comparison of ratios
Pendulums (Galilean, five-ball, chaotic)
Inertial trajectories: tests the acceleration of different
Sound pipe: 110-meter pipe that creates a sound delay of
Pan pipes: different pitches by length
Echo tube: sealed at one end to reflect sound
Acoustic mirrors (whisper dishes): facing parabolic mirrors
that transmit sound
Lithophone: a marble percussion instrument resembling a
Musical rocks: percussion pillars made of strong (lava)
Metal drums: traditional or modern designs
The Solar System
Moon and Jupiter gravity swings: simulates swinging in
these planets' gravity
Lunar simulator: simulates one-sixth Earth gravity field
of the Moon
Planetary scales: show visitor's weight on different planets
Scale model of Solar System
Sundial: tells time and offers clues about the Earth's
rotation around the Sun