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Science Museum Receives NREL Expert Input on Clean Energy Exhibits

While designing its Energy City gallery, the Connecticut Science Center worked with NREL experts to ensure the technical accuracy of the exhibit content. Energy City is the first science museum exhibit gallery to incorporate renewable energy and energy efficiency into a single, interactive learning experience.

Project Summary

A photo of a teenage boy playing a pinball machine called Energy Savers as three younger boys watch

At the Energy City gallery, a retrofitted pinball machine encourages visitors to rack up a high score by selecting smart energy choices.
Courtesy of the Connecticut Science Center

In June 2009, the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford opened its doors to engage youth and their families in science by providing an innovative, hands-on educational environment. It features 10 exhibit galleries including the Energy City gallery.

The Energy City gallery consists of 10 interactive educational exhibits designed to educate visitors on the impact that day-to-day energy use has on climate change and how renewable energy and energy conservation can reduce anthropogenic, greenhouse gas emissions. The exhibits allow visitors to explore energy use throughout a city while presenting a cohesive message about clean energy use in an entire community.

Throughout the Energy City's design process, the Science Center collaborated closely with the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund and the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund. Together, they worked with a team of designers, writers, and fabricators who transformed the technical information into appropriate exhibit formats. Then, to ensure technical accuracy, NREL experts and two local science teachers who were participants in the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Academies Creating Teacher Scientists program provided input on the exhibit content.

Timeline and Process

The planning for what would become Energy City began in 2004. The first two years focused on development of the overall message. In 2006, the Energy City team began developing the content to align with messaging and to present appropriately for educating youth.

During 2007-2008, the team revised the content and design to ensure the technical accuracy and precision of the exhibits. Exhibit construction began in 2009 concurrently with the media software development. Energy City finally opened in June 2009. The gallery continues to evolve as the team develops programs to integrate the information into classrooms around Connecticut.

Project Financing

In addition to the Science Center's funding, the two Connecticut energy funds each allocated $1 million to ensure the exhibits were scientifically and technically accurate. To achieve this, the Clean Energy Fund applied for and was awarded a grant under the DOE Technical Assistance Program (TAP), providing the Science Center access to NREL technical experts.

Challenges

Because Energy City is the first exhibit of its kind, the Science Center and the two Connecticut energy funds faced and addressed some unique challenges:

  • No Audience Focus Group
    Unlike many of the other galleries, Energy City didn't benefit from the guidance of a focus group. To help address this gap, the Science Center and its sponsors tapped into the experience the NREL experts and the teachers have had with targeting clean energy education to specific audiences. They ultimately hired one of the teachers as a consultant.

  • Writers' Inexperience with Clean Energy
    Even though the project team writers had significant writing experience, they were inexperienced when it came to writing about clean energy technologies. To compensate for this, they worked with the NREL experts and the teachers to ensure the technical accuracy of the exhibit content.

  • Vision Divergence
    When the vision the two Connecticut funds had for the gallery wasn't clear to the design team, it resulted in many content revisions. To keep the design team's vision on track, the NREL experts and the funds staff educated the design team on the realities of clean energy technologies throughout the design process.

  • Communication with Design Team
    Initially, the funds staff and the NREL experts did not have direct contact with the design team. They first sent their input to the Science Center, which passed it on to the design team. When the Science Center realized that this was creating miscommunication, it started having the experts, funds staff, and design team meet directly. This facilitated improved communications, which harmonized the technical aspects of the exhibits.

Results

Energy City's Featured Technologies:

Energy Efficiency

  • Windows
  • Passive solar design
  • Energy-efficient appliances/lighting
  • Real-time energy monitoring system
  • Daylighting
  • Occupancy sensors
  • LED traffic lights

Renewable Energy

  • Residential solar photovoltaics
  • Solar thermal
  • Wind power
  • Biomass
  • Hydropower
  • Fuel cells

Ultimately, the collaboration between the Science Center, the two Connecticut funds, the design team, NREL experts, and local teachers was a success. The Energy City gallery accurately demonstrates to visitors how renewable energy technologies and energy saving measures can be applied today in homes, schools, and businesses. Furthermore, it shows how these technologies are being applied throughout Connecticut. Visitors take away the message that clean energy technology is technically and economically feasible to use today. It's not something futuristic.

Through its replica of a city applying a multitude of clean energy technologies, the gallery also effectively demonstrates how these technologies can be integrated into a larger sustainability effort. This includes reducing the anthropogenic impacts of energy use on climate change. The Science Center actually incorporated the sustainability message into its entire building, which received LEED Gold certification in 2010. It's also the first museum to be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

Replicability

Other museums and education centers interested in developing similar clean energy exhibits could benefit from the general information compiled and lessons learned from this project. However, they would likely want to convene their own local experts to tailor the exhibits based on appropriate clean energy technology applications in their regions. As learned from this project, they'd want to initiate direct interaction between these technical experts and the design team at the earliest possible phase of the project, and include technical experts at the beginning of the content design stages. The collaboration involved in the development of the Energy City gallery was paramount to its success.

More Information

The following Web sites provide more information about the Energy City gallery, organizations, and programs discussed in this case study: