Envisioning our energy future ...

An interview with Dr. Patricia Ward at the opening of the Future Energy Chicago exhibit 09/18/2013.I must admit, when I accepted the invitation to come down to the Museum of Science and Industry for a “ribbon cutting” event for an exhibit called Future Energy Chicago, I had a very different thing in mind than what I saw. I was envisioning an overview of emerging technologies such as Generation IV reactors, new fuel sources, advanced solar developments, etc. … instead what I found was “a fast-paced, simulation game …{where users} investigate energy choices, create a vision for a more sustainable city and have a lot of fun along the way”. This is a very admirable STEM-centered exhibit … but one that is clearly more aimed at school field trips than the adult science fan.

Here’s a bit from the MSI’s introductory materials:

The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (MSI) is opening a dynamic, in-depth experience focused on tomorrow’s energy landscape—and the possibilities, opportunities and vision for creating a more sustainable energy future.

Using a state-of-the-art, multi-player simulation based on real-world data, Future Energy Chicago engages guests to explore creative solutions to our most critical energy challenges. Teams compete in five exciting and unique simulation activities to design a future car, future house, future neighborhood, future transportation network and future power grid for Chicago. …

“Our primary goal with Future Energy Chicago is to encourage and empower young people to envision their own role in our energy future,” said David Mosena, president and CEO of the Museum. “We’ve developed this experience over three years with a host of independent, research-centered energy experts, and it has the depth to motivate both kids and adults to engage in an issue that affects all of us.”

Energy GardenThe exhibit is in two parts, with three elements… an initial “Energy Garden” area where various exercise machines are set up that allow the visitor to “be the energy” running different displays (this was not turned on when I was there, so I wasn’t able to play with them – particularly disappointing as I really would have liked to have lit up the plasma tube “trees” that are powered by an array of hand bikes), along with a movie discussing energy through history, assorted technology, and with a particular focus on Chicago (with one truly amazing shot of a train load of coal heading into the city … an awesome visual!). The second part, of course, is the “game” with five stations where “teams” try to get more points than the folks playing at the other stations (as detailed in the stuff quoted above).

I had a chance to grab Dr. Patricia Ward, Director of Science and Technology at MSI (who was the lead on this project), to get her description of what they were looking at in developing this:

I also taped the speeches preceding the actual ribbon cutting, but decided that they were not something our readers would be particularly interested in watching. However, it was very clear that this was an educational outreach, with the hopes of getting more kids involved in the STEM fields. Funding was coming from both BP and Exelon (which, to their credit, did not have their logos up anywhere in the exhibit that I noticed), so this was very much part of a larger push for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.

Future Energy Chicago is an add-on ticketed exhibit (like many the MSI features), and takes an hour or so to complete (I assume that the “teams” rotate through the five parts of the game, which would take a while). I’m guessing that this is going to be very popular with the kids, so if you’re bringing some with you down to the MSI, you’ll probably want to budget for the extra expense!

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