Museum visit #4: NC Museum of Life and Science

NC Museum of Life and Science

Web Site Review:

Prior to my visit to the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, I decided to review their web site for information. The front page is very informative and visually appealing with many vignette buttons, images, and submenus easily accessible from this navigation page. Many of the more popular exhibits and programs are shown by icon at the top of the page for easy access. In addition, there are a set of tabs to navigate to various parts of the front page in layers. Each tab takes the visitor immediately to a page of the information needed such as visiting the museum, getting involved, or “how to” do many different things at the museum. The “about us” tab gives information on the mission of the museum, its commitment, and values.
The section on learning about the museum has extensive information on the main exhibits including background details, descriptions, and a context for why each exhibit is important at the museum. The sections on how to learn more and what to do on your own in relation to the exhibit are quite compelling and provide important directions for future inquiry. There is a section on science in the triangle area that relates the activities of the museum to the local scientific community and research.
Planning a visit is easily accomplished with a quick read through the “visiting the museum” tab, which includes the logistical information on location, hours, admission, and directions. Additional links provide maps and specific information on camps, exhibit events, and programs. The “get involved” section explains all of the methods through which one could make a difference working along with the museum as a volunteer, member, or camp presenter.
The site is easy to navigate and provides a wealth of information on both the museum and its broader educational mission beyond the museum door. There is a special section just for teachers on focused field trips, school programs, and professional development opportunities. Similarly, the “families” section lists the variety of ways that families can take full advantage of all of the programs and offerings from the museum. Additional materials for evaluation of museum field trips and follow-up lessons are available from the web site to extend the learning experiences for special groups. The museum has put considerable thought into both the content and organization of this site and it shows. Information, connectivity, organization, and visual appeal all work together quite well to provide a high quality site.
Museum Visit:
On March 6th, 2008, I visited the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina. The museum lies inside the city of Durham not far from the intersection of US 501 and interstate 85. Signs direct visitors toward the museum, but the route could be better marked for the new visitor. The web site has excellent maps that help to direct eager visitors.
The museum has a large, well-designed parking lot and evident landmarks including a Redstone rocket outside its largest building. The Life and Science Museum actually encompasses an entire campus of buildings and an outdoor science park. Tickets to the entire complex are obtained just inside the main building where a gift shop lies directly to the right for easy access to the entrance. The staff is very welcoming and desk attendants provide ample information about daily programming as well as ticket and admission details. Restrooms are easily accessible upon direct entrance and most of the largest building is accessed off the main transverse hallway directly behind the front desk. One end of this hall begins the indoor exhibit tour with a large space for traveling exhibits, while the other provides access to other exhibit areas and the exit out to the outdoor science park area.

My tour had scarcely began, when an unexpected power outage plunged the entire facility into darkness right after I had entered the traveling exhibit. The staff quickly worked to effect a solution and the rest of the visitors remained calm as the staff assured us that this was only a temporary problem probably due to the new construction going on inside their park. Indeed, they were correct, when a minute or so later, the power returned and the staff made the rounds in the museum to insure that every exhibit was operating properly. Their dedication to the visitors, the museum, and their re-assurance was quite admirable in this circumstance. Their professionalism and calm reaction in what was obviously an unusual happening demonstrated the degree to which they valued their role as museum educators.

The traveling exhibit featured the nature of certain structures in architecture and buildings. The variety of kid-friendly interactive building activities had enticed several groups of young engineers to try their hands at constructive creativity. This exhibit was fairly simple in its conception and design, but very effective in several areas, producing a context for growth in architectural knowledge through experimentation and design. All of the visitors were enjoying their opportunity to explore new vistas through their buildings and several young visitors even continued their work in the relative darkness during the short power outage.

Turning the corner, one enters the weather exhibit sponsored partly by the local television station and weather service. A large tornado simulator dominates the room illustrating the conditions under which air vortices may form. A mist pool shows how a cloud forms along side a large globe of spinning sediments and varying vortices. A sand-blowing chamber complete with visitor-controlled fan allows for interactive experimentation of winds on small particles. Next to this, a thoroughly modern, automated, computer-controlled weather station displays data on local weather conditions along with informative signs to explain what much of it means. A large rotating disc exhibit illustrates the complex nature of varying vortex rotations on fluids such as water vapor. The cloud-like features that it creates can be directly compared to those often viewed in the real sky. However, the highlight of this exhibit is definitely the large tornado simulator.

The simulator exhibit rises twelve feet above the floor with a large grate approximately two feet high from which the mist emanates to start the tornado. Four large poles support the illuminated top portion that houses a large fan to create an updraft and rotation to create the air vortex. Several signs surround this simulator to explain its operation and what it simulates. Smaller children are welcome to climb up onto the platform and interact directly with the resulting simulated tornadoes. During its operation, I observed several groups of patrons, many ranging greatly in age and experience, interact with this exhibit. It produces a very realistic simulation of a tornado and attracts a great deal of attention from all visitors. This exhibit will be one focus for my own project on tornadoes and how to best illustrate what they are to public patrons.

The next exhibit section focuses on geology, rocks and minerals. Many rock specimens in various cases illustrate rocks in each stage of the rock cycle. A sedimentation tube, which was broken on my visit, is intended to show how settling of sediments produces sedimentary rocks. A seismograph rounds out this exhibit where visitors are encouraged to jump around and create their own quake on the scale. However, the relation of much of the intended content from this set of exhibits seems to need additional consideration. Both the method of exhibition along with the ineffective guidance from signs should be corrected to insure that visitors are more motivated to interact as well as learn from these displays.

A short exhibit on surface tension offers a bit more interaction, although just raising and lowering a basket is rather a dull method for interactivity. A few of the other areas of displays offer varying levels of interactivity, with the usual buttons to push, levers to pull, and cranks to turn. A large lunar lander module is a highlight of their collection of space artifacts. It is quite well displayed, but again, the only interactivity seems to be a small laser pen dot to illuminate various portions for demonstrations. Some of the insect displays have magnifying lenses and other tools to encourage visitors to “act like scientists” during the investigations. However, I did not observe as much enthusiasm for this type of interaction from the young patrons during my visit.

One highlight of this indoor building is the young people’s play area, which is designed specifically for younger visitors. Small tables, chairs, and kid-sized areas for investigation are interspersed with bright colored interactive activities. Play houses, a variety of manipulatives, and a large maze for rolling balls around provide many opportunities for younger patrons to investigate simple science principles.


A new exhibit was still under construction on the second floor and I had an opportunity to view part of the unfinished product. “Investigate Health” is the latest exhibit under development at the museum and focuses on how everyday health is affected by such activities as wearing sunscreen, hand washing, and being under too much stress. The exhibits were almost complete and a new interactive area for monitoring heart rates had just opened up earlier the week of my visit. This exhibit also included a board for feedback on exercise, nutrition and society where patrons could express their thoughts about the exhibit and the content on which it focuses.
The second floor also houses several earth-related technological exhibits including one on simulating earthquakes and testing structures. This exhibit features the ability to build a structure using special blocks and then simulate an earthquake that may knock it down. By allowing visitors to construct their own models, it offers a large variety of options and potential variables to be investigated through this exhibit. However, the signs and accompanying instructions are very simple and do not take full advantage of the potential of this exhibit. With a few minor alterations, which could include a variable speed motor, different blocks with varying colors, or even some options to build on varying types of surfaces, this exhibit has many more possibilities for advanced interaction and development of deeper knowledge. The exhibit does not even mention P, S, and L waves, nor does it encourage any particular types of buildings or structural characteristics. It is a perfect example of a good exhibit idea that needs further development and cognitive scaffolding for maximum effectiveness.

Upon journeying outdoors into the science park, one is first struck by the clanging sounds of a myriad of musical percussion instruments dangling enticingly from kiosks. Of course this presents a perfect opportunity for many young visitors to not only expend excess energy, but also investigate the nature of varying sounds. However, the cacophony can be a bit overwhelming to those whose musical natures are more disposed towards Mozart than Metallica.
From the outdoor concert-fest, one proceeds along a causeway to the charming small animal park with the usual assortment of farm animals. Donkeys, pigs, goats, chickens, and other typical domesticated beasts inhabit standard fenced areas common for these creatures. Obviously, a large hit with some visitors, this contented crew of pets provides a welcome illustration of life on a farm.




The next large building is one of my favorite exhibits at this museum. The Magic Wings butterfly house is an indoor tropical environment that not only houses butterflies, but an entire miniature version of a tropical ecosystem. To enter the environment, one must venture through a special air lock system to insure that no animals get in or out of this habitat. Once inside, the temperature and humidity are carefully regulated and the onslaught of small winged creatures begins. A small artificial brook flows through this domed habitat and one experiences its ebb and flow while walking around a path through giant palms, broad-leafed plants, unusual flowers and feeding stations for both birds and butterflies. A great addition is the observation area for chrysalis formation and butterfly emergence. If lucky enough, one can watch a butterfly emerge from one of the many chrysali at one end of the habitat. This is truly a great exhibition of wildlife and a wonderful opportunity to interact with some smaller creatures with which we share our earth. An impressive variety of additional insect exhibits also showcase grasshoppers, butterflies of the world, and even some spiders.

Venturing farther down the path past Grayson’s Cafe, a great place for a snack in the park, one comes to the newest addition to the museum. A large boardwalk and path take one down to the most recent habitats constructed around a flooded rock quarry. The center is a wetland habitat and the exterior areas are used to house several of the museum’s unique animals. Black bears, red wolves, and lemurs are popular stops along the path. They inhabit state of the art enclosures with fairly ample space and diversity for their needs considering that they are in a suburban setting. The lemur exhibit also has a special interactive camera system for monitoring them up close in their unusual behaviors.




Farther along the path, a new exhibit on wind is under construction. “Catch the Wind” features a large sailboat pond and experimental area, an air ring shooting station, and a wonderful falling-seed experiment station. This seed station is unique in that it allows one to try out several types of seed shapes and sizes and see how long it takes them to fall to the ground. The shooting station allows visitors to experiment with varying amounts and directions of wind and visualize the effects on a special screen board. Additional exhibits involving large fans and other wind-related activities are still in the test phase.
Overall, this museum is very much a combination of a small hands-on science center and a small zoo. It provides a wide variety of science experiences in a delightfully family-oriented atmosphere. Although some of the exhibits could benefit from greater cognitive scaffolding for greater effectiveness, they do convey many scientific principles quite well on a basic level. This museum is a local favorite for many residents of the triangle area and continues to provide a wealth of science learning programs for visitors of all ages and styles. I look forward to its continued expansion and growth in the future.


































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