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Inside this issue:

Natural Attraction: Implementing Your Science Park

Roofed by Sky: How Settings Shape Science Parks

Outdoor Exhibits: Thinking Outside the Fence

Landscape as Exhibit: The Science Park at Montshire Museum

Resources for Science Parks

Mind, Body, and Spirit: The Benefits of Outdoor Learning

Design for Playing: Safety and Substance in Outdoor Exhibit Areas

Open to Everyone: Making BioQuest Accessible

Freedom and Ownership: The Berkeley Adventure Playground


Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: March/April 2003
March/April 2003
Sun, Wind, & Water:
The Promise of Science Parks
Natural Attraction: Implementing Your Science Park

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 museum—SciTech Hands On Museum, in Aurora, Illinois—as 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.

Getting started

Advance planning for a science park involves many steps: evaluating available space, targeting potential audiences, identifying project resources, and choosing partners.

  photo of visitors at an Outdoor Science Center in Aurora, Illinois
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 outreach.

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 downtown.

  Photo of an exhibit entitled Swimming Stones
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 safe

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 year—important for solar exhibits—and 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 metals—aluminum, brass, stainless steel—are 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 daunting—there 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 effect.

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.

  Photo of a scaled up version of an inverted Yo-Yo toy that propells the user upward.
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 long.

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' outdoor experiences.

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.

An Outdoor Exhibits Sampler

Organized by theme, these are exhibits that have been used successfully outdoors in science parks. For information on suppliers, contact the author at—R.M.


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 energy sources
Solar fountain: produces water height proportional to solar radiation


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 bodies

Sound pipe: 110-meter pipe that creates a sound delay of one-third second
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 xylophone
Musical rocks: percussion pillars made of strong (lava) rock
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

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