Imagine a 12-year-old popular-culture fan who has badgered his family to go see the "Treasures of the Disney Archives" exhibit now visiting the Museum of Science Industry (MSI) in Chicago. Finished with that exhibit, entertained and alert, he drifts into a more science-heavy area of the museum — "YOU! The Experience."
A human figure in a display case catches his eye, and he stops to look.
Will whatever is in that case engage him, and perhaps his younger sister, too? Will the story that ties the exhibit together make them slow down and take their time going through one of the nation's premier science museums? If it does, this visit could very well galvanize these children and start them on a path toward becoming stewards of the environment, advocates for science, perhaps even scientists themselves.
Or will the kids look away, walk back to the stairs, and tell their mom they're ready for lunch?
Patricia Ward, director of science and technology for the MSI, is part of a team that works hard to make sure visitors to the MSI engage deeply with what they encounter there.
"If you don't connect with people emotionally as well as intellectually, you don't connect," she says.
Ward, an AAAS fellow, Ph.D. biologist, and former research assistant professor in virology at the University of Chicago, whose postdoctoral work was on the herpes simplex virus, has worked at the MSI since 1999.
Ward was the project director on "YOU! The Experience," a 15,000-square-foot permanent exhibit about the wonders, the functioning, and the maintenance of the human body. The exhibit uses all kinds of things to grab visitors—parts of real, preserved human bodies, constructions, virtual technology, splashes of color, and the outsize scale of the museum itself, which easily absorbs a human-sized hamster wheel visitors can run on, and a 13-foot-tall, beating "Giant Heart" that can synchronize to each visitor's own pulse, among other attractions.
But "You! The Experience" is also about the human spirit. The "Stay Active" area of the exhibit spotlights people who overcome great handicaps to enjoy sports, like a paralyzed surfer and blind people who ride mountain bikes.
"If they can do it, surely the rest of us can do something to stay active," Ward says. "The biggest light bulb for me on that project, especially as a biologist, was the day I realized it was missing the psychology, the human element. Once we got that incorporated, that freed us to explore what this exhibit could be—truly about health and wellbeing, [incorporating] experiences that would help visitors reflect on their own lives, no matter where they are on the journey."
Ward came to work at the 80-year-old museum "at the ideal time," when the MSI administration was beginning to focus on "the overriding importance of science education," says Kurt Haunfelner, vice president for exhibits and collections. Four-fifths of the MSI's exhibits have been changed or re-envisioned since 2000. Ward has been a key player in the museum's efforts to "communicate science in a powerful and compelling way," Haunfelner says.
Ward sees similarities between the work she did as a scientist in the lab, and working as part of a team to put together effective science exhibits at the MSI. The day-to-day successes in both jobs, she notes, come from solving the innumerable problems that litter the road to completion for projects that can take years to realize.
"It is about putting the pieces together in some meaningful way. To me, that is a narrative," Ward says. There is always a story in there somewhere, she says, and "the story puts a human element into it."
Science is tricky to present in a popular setting, though. It can be hard to create solid educational content that is "simple but not distorted," Ward says. "We go to great lengths to make sure that things are accurate, both factually and in their interpretation."
Ward was project director on an exhibit that opened at the MSI this fall called "Future Energy Chicago," which engages 30 people at a time in segments that include a game simulation. Visitors are winners if they make wise energy choices for their car, house, neighborhood, mass transit, and power generation.
A couple of things stand out in the approach Ward and the rest of the MSI team took to this exhibit, says Randi Korn, founding director of Randi Korn & Assoc., a firm that helps museums develop and evaluate their exhibits.
"Future Energy Chicago" is "focused on one message"—we can all contribute to a sustainable energy future—and it's designed to hold the attention of middle-schoolers (and others) for a full 30 minutes, "which is on the high side," Korn says. "It's quite remarkable."
Korn and Haunfelner both spoke admiringly of the exhaustive "prototyping" Ward and her team did to get the right mix for the energy exhibit. "She focuses on getting it right, so people can have a little of the passion she has on the subject," says Korn.
But in the daily life of a museum, Ward says, visitors "take away what they will. They make their own meaning [from the exhibits] in the informal learning environment we provide." That can be "scary, that responsibility" of sending people out into the world with whatever they have gleaned, maybe just caroming around the museum, but the thrill when visitors really connect with an exhibit is one of the best parts of her job, Ward says.
Ward loves the idea that the MSI sparks people's interest and helps them "recognize that science and technology are ubiquitous in our lives. You can't be an informed adult without some understanding of elements of science and technology. Science underpins issues that really affect our lives—energy, water, health. Yes, science is hard. Everything worth doing is hard. It's all a matter of connecting people to those natural points of inspiration."