Warming up to science

Climate change exhibits engage Gateway Museum’s inquisitive visitors

Gateway Science Museum docent Stephanie Parker, left, and Executive Director Adrienne McGraw have seen kids respond to the climate change exhibits.

Gateway Science Museum docent Stephanie Parker, left, and Executive Director Adrienne McGraw have seen kids respond to the climate change exhibits.

Photo by Josh Cozine

Extended hours:
The Gateway Science Museum stays open until 9 p.m. the third Thursday each month. Normal summer hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. The museum is at 625 Esplanade. Info: csuchico.edu/gateway

On a recent Friday, three young visitors to the Gateway Science Museum spotted the model research vessel taking up the center of the North Gallery. Immediately boarding, the kids started playing make-believe with the mock scientific instruments and toy marine animals on board.

“Today was their last day of school,” said Nicole Andrews, one of the mothers who had brought the children—faces painted from their earlier celebration at school—to the museum to kick off their summer vacation by checking out its latest offerings.

This summer, the Gateway Science Museum’s focus is on climate change, and so far, the exhibits seem to be a hit. The aquatic-themed “Climate Change Oceans, Acid vs. Life” will remain at the museum through Sept. 9, while “Beauty & The Beast: California Wildflowers & Climate Change” will run until later in the fall.

“The kids are learning and having fun, and the adults are quite engaged, just as much as the kids are,” Luann M. Manss, a part-time docent, said outside the Newberry Gallery, home of the wildflower exhibit. Inside, pictures of native wildflowers (such as the deep-purple silver lupine and our iconic state flower, the California poppy) fill the gallery, along with descriptions of the delicate habitat required for each to thrivehabitats threatened by global warming trends.

In the North Gallery, coral reef reconstructions—some with areas bright and colorful, others pale and devoid of life—surround the boat. The exhibit focuses on ocean acidification and coral bleaching, two side-effects of global warming.

Stephanie Parker, another docent, said that when sharing with visitors information on effects a changing climate can have on ecosystems, “I’m really surprised at how much they already know.” Showing pretty flowers and colorful coral brings the concepts home, Parker continued—that makes children and parents want to get even more involved in conservation and learn even more about the science behind it all.

Concentrating on this topic is an intentional choice.

“We’re a science museum, so we’re definitely trying to talk about climate change—it is a big, important topic in science,” Adrienne McGraw, the museum’s director, said from her corner office on the grounds.

“Climate change is the most important global and local phenomenon that we’re facing.”

Before any exhibit gets chosen, it must meet specific criteria. First, exhibits are vetted to make sure they come from reputable sources, then the topic must be deemed to be “of interest to the general populace,” McGraw said. Last, but not least, the exhibits must be hands-on in some way.

The museum, McGraw estimates, welcomes about 18,000 visitors a year, a large number being children5,000 to 6,000 from school field trips alone, even during the summer. Interactive elements draw them in and keep them entertained, she said, while making concepts that are difficult to understand, such as coral bleaching and ocean acidification, more approachable.

Back on board the miniature research vessel, the children played with a replica data logger among the scientific instruments. The logger, a clipboard made to resemble a tablet computer, showed it was connected to a nearby remote sensor just behind the boat in the coral exhibit that’s in the process of bleaching—that is, losing color due to changes in the ocean.

Other displays of coral, throughout different stages of bleaching, dot the room; one chunk is large enough for children to crawl through.

To better explain the science behind the process of coral bleaching, seven monitors with push-to-play videos stand on either side of the vessel. Each plays short videos that explain how coral is made, a major cause of coral bleaching and exactly what ocean acidification is, as visitors proceed clockwise from one to the next in the ordered series.

Coral, the video explains, actually is composed of many organisms living on and among a hardened skeleton-like structure made of calcium carbonate, which is exuded through chemical processes by other marine organisms.

Bleaching, the videos go on to explain—with bright and attractive colors, and easy-to-follow narration—comes from a chemical change due to increasingly acidic oceans as a result of absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide naturally forms carbonic acid in water, which in higher levels begins to disrupt the coral’s natural levels of calcium carbonate; instead, corals form with more calcium bicarbonate, which is incapable of supporting life the same way. Thus, the colorful organisms once inhabiting the coral no longer can survive, and it turns a pale, bleached white.

“It sounds complicated, but I find that [the exhibits] take complicated subjects—especially the chemistry part of how the oceans are acidifying—and make it a lot more approachable,” Parker said. “I’ve had kids regurgitate the information back very well. They may not fully understand, but they mostly get it.”