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The 4th Paradigm: Connecting Visitors to Complex Science

Saturday afternoon, a packed session room in Albuquerque listened to a thought-provoking presentation entitled, The 4th Paradigm: Connecting Visitors to Complex Science. Session leader Stephen Uzzo of the New York Hall of Science introduced presenters Patrick Hamilton of the Science Museum of Minnesota, Catherine Cramer of the Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence, and Geralyn Abinader, also of the New York Hall of Science. The session focused on the rapid rise of easily accessible data and how to make this data interesting and understandable to science center visitors. The presenters all emphasized the importance of visualizations and immersive experiences and environments.

Stephen Uzzo opened the session by highlighting the differences between pre-21st century science and current science. In the past, scientists focused on observing and recording nature and creating physical models based on their observations. Now, scientists and researchers can use “the 4th paradigm,” also known as e-science or the data driven approach. Massive amounts of data are captured by instruments and analyzed by computer software. “More data has been collected in the past year than in all previous years since science began,” Uzzo said. Informal science educators and institutions can work with these scientists and researchers to bring this information to the general public.

Patrick Hamilton spoke next about the Future Earth initiative at the Science Museum of Minnesota, a National Science Foundation-funded project focusing on humans’ impact on the earth and environment. He showed fascinating visualizations of global data, including farming and grazing land around the world, roads, railways, and dams, the pH levels of oceans, and even Facebook users. These visualizations demonstrated the translation of “big data” into easy to understand visuals for the general public.

The next presenter was Catherine Cramer, who spoke about the Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence and the Ocean Literacy Framework project. Much like what was mentioned in Uzzo’s discussion, many ocean scientists are using data and computer models to conduct their research, rather than spending time in the open ocean. Cramer also discussed current hands-on informal science projects, which translate very complex ocean data into easy-to-understand activities, such as robotics kits, NOAA’s Adopt a Drifter program, and the Build Your Own Buoy projects. Another avenue being explored to translate ocean data for the general public is the collaboration of artists and scientists to display data. In her experience, scientists really want to work with educators and informal science institutions!

Geralyn Abinader finished up the individual presentations by discussing the Connected Worlds exhibit in development at the New York Hall of Science. The project immerses visitors in an interactive environment in which they can modify elements of one environment and witness the effect on other environments. This immersive environment makes visitors less likely to hang onto their preconceived ideas and allows them to walk away with a deeper understanding of the material.