The Exploratorium And The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory

Ruzan Haruriunyan's picture

The first collaboration between the Exploratorium and a science research laboratory has resulted in the development of an educational center that is already making waves with students, educators, and scientists. Opened in November 2006, the new Science Education Center at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, Louisiana, incorporates the accumulated knowledge of the Exploratorium's decades of experience in developing techniques for the informal learning of science.

The LIGO Science Education Center includes over three dozen exhibits originally developed at the Exploratorium, educational outreach programs for students and teachers, and Wave Wall, a kinetic wind sculpture involving 120 27-foot-long pendulums installed across the entire 85-foot length of the center's façade, exclusively designed for the site by Exploratorium artists. The collaboration is a project of the Exploratorium's Center for Museum Partnerships.

Dr. Michael Zucker, senior scientist at the LIGO Laboratory, and John Thacker, LIGO's education and outreach program leader, worked with Exploratorium experts to create the new facility. The Exploratorium-LIGO team worked with the architect on the building design, all the way down to such details as classroom desks, as well as exhibits.

Because the observatory uses laser technology and the physics principle of wave interference in order to detect ripples in the space-time fabric that was predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity, the exhibits that were chosen from the Exploratorium's collection demonstrate the physics concepts underlying this work. The over three dozen hands-on exhibits cover topics of waves, oscillations, gravity, resonance, lasers, interferometers, and even waves in music.

According to Zucker, choosing the exhibits was a challenge, since the center had to satisfy a number of requirements all at once. "We had to tell the LIGO story in a way that crossed kindergarten through 12th grade. Second, we had to tell the whole LIGO story. And third, it had to fit in with the Louisiana science curriculum," says Zucker. And each exhibit had to measure up to one final criterion: "Is it cool?"
Exploratorium educators traveled to Louisiana to hold workshops for local teachers on how to conduct hands-on inquiry sessions using the new exhibits; they also lead activities that could be done back in the classroom to reinforce the lessons from a LIGO visit.

Beyond educational expertise, the Exploratorium contributed the artistry to enliven the exterior of the new LIGO Science Education Center with the kinetic sculpture Wave Wall. The team from the San Francisco-based museum -- including senior scientist Thomas Humphrey, senior artists Peter Richards and Susan Schwartzenberg, and exhibit developers Shawn Lani and Charles Sowers -- came up with a dynamic artwork that combines art and science and makes the exterior of the building memorable.

"This part of Louisiana has a lot of wind. We came up with the idea of thirty-foot-long pendulums that would be wind detectors," says Humphrey. He points out that the wind detectors mirror the observatory's mission as a gravity wave detector.

The new LIGO Science Education Center may only have just opened, but the introduction of the Exploratorium's approach to informal learning to southern Louisiana has already had an impact, according to LIGO director of education John Thacker.

At the science education center, "A child will get to see the same concept in three or four different exhibits," says Thacker. "With more opportunities to learn that concept in a fun, hands-on way, the student is more likely to succeed."

"I feel privileged to have interacted with the world's best in terms of their knowledge of education and science," says Thacker of his interactions with the team from the Exploratorium's Center for Museum Partnerships.

"Working on this science center was one of the most important things I did in my time at Livingston," says Zucker. "It was a great deal of fun."

The Exploratorium's Center for Museum Partnerships reaches out to the world with exhibits and teaching programs in the interest of fulfilling its mission of "going beyond the walls" of the Exploratorium to foster a culture of learning through collaborations with museums and other organizations, both in the U.S. and abroad.

The Exploratorium is a museum of science, art, and human perception founded in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer. The Exploratorium's mission is to create a culture of learning through innovative environments, programs, and tools that help people nurture their curiosity about the world around them.


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