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Future Earth Exhibit Tells a Better Story

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Hats off to the Science Museum of Minnesota for its latest exhibit, Future Earth: Science on a Sphere. Future Earth is the latest brainchild of an increasingly productive partnership between the Science Museum of Minnesota and researchers at the University of Minnesota. Representing the University are IonE's Jon Foley, Global Landscapes Initiative Team, and resident fellow David Tilman.

Not just a place to unleash the kids on a rainy afternoon, the Science Museum has something to offer everyone. The Future Earth exhibit explores how humans now have a larger effect on the Earth than natural processes. I expected the exhibit to coddle the audience, offering simplistic environmental platitudes that "every little bit counts." While this is true, of course, it overlooks the harsh realities of limited resources, limited political will and limited time to create meaningful change. The truth is some bits count a lot more than others. If agricultural activities emit more greenhouse gases than any other human activity - more than transportation, energy or manufacturing - do we really believe that getting everyone to change the type of light bulbs they use will solve the climate crisis? Such feel-good efforts have become excuses for complacency and distract us from strategically approaching the environmental crisis.

My fears were unjustified. I found Future Earth to be a thoughtful, skilled construction that succeeds where too many in academia fail: effectively communicating complex choices to the nonscientific public. Future Earth delivers, and then raises the bar for the rest of us.  Technology is integrated seamlessly into the live presentations. The presenter controls the "Science on a Sphere" globe with a Wii remote and is able to display information on the 3-D surface. The presentation's scope includes temperature variations in different portions of the Earth, the globe at night, and even social media connections. Arguably a bit of a gimmick, the exhibit uses it to spectacular effect when presenting global changes in land use and makes the live presentation and short film memorable crowd-pleasers.  Outside of the presentation, visitors can play energy pinball, feel the temperature of the Earth without an atmosphere, and see how ocean acidity changes with increased levels of carbon dioxide.

Students will recognize iClickers from some of their classes, which enable instant, in-class quizzes and opinion polls. Though their application in classes can sometimes be hit or miss, I found the iClickers a terrific asset during the presentation. If only they were so much fun in biochemistry! Public responses are even retained for an ongoing study by the Science Museum.

Multiple-choice questions on energy and agriculture appear innocuous enough, but fly in the face of the conventional wisdom surrounding urban agriculture and foodie-environmentalism. Organic-buying, farmer's-market-loving locavores may have to reconsider their choices when confronted with the relative environmental costs of these choices. Are you an Energy Expert? I learned I am emphatically not. This is one of the highlights of the exhibit - it challenges our assumptions and reveals the gaps in what we thought we knew. One leaves surprised, challenged, and even unsettled by an exercise that takes less than 10 minutes.

Future Earth sugar-coats nothing, but also does not succumb to doom and gloom prognostications. This is a delicate balance to strike when the familiar frameworks of industry, energy and agriculture lend themselves so readily to black-and-white interpretations. Future Earth offers a nuanced understanding that demands more from visitors and delivers more in kind. It presents facts in an accessible format, then asks provocative, straightforward questions. The answers aren't easy, but what emerges is a message of individual empowerment, hope, and, perhaps most remarkably, urgency and personal responsibility.

This is what research can look like when brought before the public. One can't help thinking that if we all did a better job at this, the sustainability discourse might look quite different. Future Earth leaves a lasting impression and offers a model for others trying to mobilize the public and decision makers around environmental issues. Counteracting inertia may be the toughest battle out there. We could all learn to do it a little better.

I encourage you to see the exhibit, have fun, and soak up what science you can. But perhaps also take a lesson in what interactive learning and public outreach really look like from some of the people who are doing it best.

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  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.