If any organization in the world lives and dies by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), it’s NASA. And if any vehicle personifies STEM from nose to engines, it’s the orbiter. That’s why when the new home of the space shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex opens this summer, you’ll find STEM from wall-to-wall.
“The problem is that it’s easy to view STEM as a series of check-boxes, ” says Doug Nickrent (left), chief exhibit designer at PGAV Destinations. “But this project really helps us understand that STEM is an attitude, a way of life – it’s the foundation of understanding how everything in our world works.”
STEM principles are incorporated into almost each and every one of the 60+ new exhibits coming to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, but one of the goals is that visitors don’t realize it’s a STEM exhibit – that they simply enjoy the learning they’re involved in. By showing guests that science and math aren’t just school subjects, but the key to understanding our existence, the exhibit designers are aiming to inspire people to pursue these subjects, build their expertise in them, and better our world through a variety of fields. They hope to accomplish this through developing a fun, entertaining, fascinating experience. Emily Howard (below left), project manager of the operation, explains that the new exhibit will cause millions of visitors to say, “oh my gosh, how’d they figure that out?!” – and then they’ll want to learn how, be amazed at the process, and be inspired to become a part of it.
Nickrent explains that it takes a tremendous amount of research and work and bringing together a number of different elements. On one side, it’s about understanding the lessons and science you’d like to teach. On the other side, it’s about deeply understanding your different audiences – basic demographics; but more importantly, understanding how they learn and what topics interest them. Lastly, it’s about bringing all those together – boiling down complex scientific principles into meaningful, interesting messages for a varied, targeted audience.
In the end, you find a mix of high technology, playful hands-on interactives, stunning visuals, interpreters, text, and more woven into a variety of exhibits that do a great job of teaching while they entertain. You may get to put a blowtorch to a heat shield from the underside of a shuttle – then touch it and feel that it’s cool as a cucumber. You may encounter a digital wall that tells the story and history of each piece of the millions of shuttle parts. No two lessons are alike.
Many of the new exhibits are going to incorporate the principles of physical play, the power of pretend play, and the relationships and personal stories of the people who worked on the shuttle program. A sampling of these exhibits includes a model of the International Space Station that children can crawl through and explore, a slide that follows the glide path of a shuttle when it returns to Earth, and even the opportunity to “kick around” digital hydrogen and oxygen molecules, simulating the chemical reactions that occur during a shuttle’s launch.
One of the challenges STEM has faced – in fact, our whole country has faced – is getting more girls and women excited about and interested in the various fields that fall under science, technology, engineering, and math. According to a 2009 study by the National Science Foundation entitled Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, 57% more men than women earned bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering fields in 2007. The exhibit designers at PGAV Destinations were well-aware of this disparity when designing the new orbiter home, and took a number of deliberate steps to help address it. “Research shows that generally speaking girls are more interested in communication and personal relationships than boys are, ” says Nickrent. “So throughout the new orbiter home, you’ll find a lot of stories about the people involved in the shuttle program and their relationships with each other.” That includes the trainers, the ground-support crew, engineers –there are hundreds of jobs beyond being an astronaut, and women fill a lot of those really fascinating, essential roles.
One of the other aspects being incorporated are ‘spin-offs, ’ technology in our daily lives that finds its source at NASA. “Generally, people just don’t realize how many of the things we use and experience every day found their origin in technology designed by NASA for shuttles, rovers, rockets, and spacesuits, ” says Howard. “When you can draw that connection between high-level science and your personal, daily life, you can really make that information stick.”
When people walk away from their first visit to the new orbiter home, the designers are already planning out what guests will probably tell their friends. First, they’re going to be in awe when they see a real-live spacecraft, that’s flown in space, as closely and intimately as they possibly could. Second, based on the STEM principles they experience (that they won’t even realize are STEM), they’re going to walk away amazed and excited about where we’re going next. As Howard puts it, “it’s going to drop jaws.”