Aldo Leopold Nature Center
The video globe offers a unique perspective on events past and present — plus, it's just plain cool. For more photos, click gallery, above.
If you pull up to the Aldo Leopold Nature Center on a warm weekend day, you might catch a glimpse of ponytails and braids bobbing through prairie cordgrass as one of the center naturalists winds a troop of birthday partiers past a shagbark hickory and off along a trail. As you approach the front doors, you might hear an occasional round of giggles in the distance. But once inside, sights and sounds of the natural world give way to digitized voices, sliding plasma panels hot with reds, yellows and oranges of global warming, high-definition touch-screens, a suspended globe six feet in diameter, and other interactive multimedia exhibits in the new Climate Education Center.
The exhibits focus on what's been going on in our natural world, says Kathe Crowley Conn, president and executive director of the center. Sure, some exhibits focus on the topic of climate, but as a whole the installations look at communities, populations, ecosystems and the world to show how changes in our environment affect us and our planet.
Rosanna Lopez and her son Julio Sanchez, 11, stand at the touch-screen "American CO2 Emissions Calculator." Julio's finger traces a list of actions each household can take to reduce emissions. He smiles as he selects all but one of the recommended lifestyle shifts his family had already made. Then they watch the interactive bar chart dip to indicate how much of a difference they could help make.
The education center doesn't lecture. It provides facts, trends, hypotheses and anecdotes through exhibits developed by groups including the National Academy of Sciences, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Climate Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin. It adds up to an experience that encourages critical thinking, questioning and problem solving.
That's key, says Conn, to making sure people are drawn into the topics and feel empowered to do something about them. "Most people learn in a variety of ways, and hands-on learning in nature can be very powerful - especially when combined with things that are digital," according to Patrice Legro, director of the Marian Koshland Science Museum, National Academy of Sciences. "A lot of nature centers, for obvious reasons, place much more emphasis on outdoor environment. But to combine high-tech with high-touch? That's something different," says Legro.
One benefit of digital media is that visitors can drill down on topics that interest them most. Another is that exhibits can incorporate new data and experiences, says Conn.
Science on a Sphere, the six-foot video globe designed by NOAA, is a perfect example. Different video programs play across the globe on different days, offering a unique perspective on events - past and present. Visitors can watch video of earthquakes from satellite feeds, see footage of what hurricane Katrina looked like from space and more.
Yes, it is very cool. It's also not the only exhibit that draws visitors in with the "wow" factor before hooking them with the actual content of the experience. That Trojan Horse effect is important because technology is central to a lot that kids do these days.
"Our kids read books, but they're familiar with the technology," says visitor John Kremer who stumbled upon the education center after a nature walk with his kids Gracie, 7, and Henry, 4. "You kind of have to reach them where they live, and they live in electronics much more than we ever did. I think it's great."
And with that, Gracie and Henry pull John towards the Kids' Climate Cast - a green-screen that allows visitors to simulate a live weather forecast "broadcast" on a flat-screen monitor in the next room.
Even though much of the exhibit is accessible, some of it might still seem a bit, well, scientific. But if you attend one of the center's Wonder Weekends, naturalists float between installations, facilitating conversations, answering questions and helping visitors get the most out of the information.
The center was pretty quiet on a recent weekend. While some may think that's a bad thing, given the complexity of these topics, it's great. It's an opportunity to take your time and connect with what matters most to your kids. "It's the conversation between the parents and the kids that is the most interesting," Legro says. "There's a lot going on about the meaning of what they're learning. It's an ideal experience for family groups. "
More than two hours into their visit, Rosanna and Julio have left the education center to explore the nature trails outside. From a distance, they seem to blend into the horizon of trees and shadows before disappearing for a while. On the way back to the car, Julio stops to remark about his adventures and how his new knowledge has affected his appreciation of the outdoors.
"We were looking at the turtles and the ducks - the turtle fell off a log," he laughs. "It was good to like...feel the nature and feel the motion of life. We put our feet in the lake and relaxed. It was really fun."