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USC Scientists Team Up With Museum Creators

William F. McComas, director of science education for the School of Education, was a consultant, along with other USC experts, for the new California Science Center’s World of Life exhibit .

DAVE COMBS WAS in the midst of overseeing the construction of Tess – the 50-foot-long human model that will be the centerpiece for the California Science Center’s World of Life exhibition hall – when he needed a reality check.

Combs, curator for the World of Life, called Judy A. Garner, an associate professor of cell and neurobiology at the School of Medicine. Garner has been part of a team of nine USC scientists who have helped to plan and check the accuracy of exhibits in the new museum, which opens Saturday, Feb. 7, in Exposition Park. The $130 million California Science Center replaces the California Museum of Science and Industry.

Combs wanted Garner to check Tess’ muscles, which are exposed on one arm and leg. “Judy’s field is anatomy, and we wanted Tess to be as anatomically correct as possible,” Combs said. They had worked on the model’s accuracy via faxes and e-mail; however, at one point there was no better way than for Garner to view the model in person, at the factory in Valencia where Tess was being built.

“The muscles are so complex that I drove Judy out there,” Combs recalls. “We strode around giant arm and leg muscles while Judy made suggestions of where the muscles and other body parts could be more accurate. She was incredibly helpful.”

Garner describes Tess as “pretty close to the real thing.” Her giant body is sculpted from foam blocks. The muscles were modeled on illustrations photocopied from anatomy textbooks. A complication arose because anatomy textbooks show the right arm and leg, while the model makers had randomly chosen to display the muscles in Tess’ left arm and leg.

“We had to Xerox photos from anatomy books, then make transparencies from them and copy the reverse side,” Garner explained.

Garner and other USC scientists, who served on the museum’s Technical Advisory Committee, worked with museum curators when the World of Life and the Creative World exhibits were first being planned about three years ago. More recently, they reviewed for accuracy scripts of videos and written captions that accompany the exhibits. The committee also included faculty from UCLA, Caltech, Cal State L.A. and Occidental College.

Four themed science areas are planned at the museum. The first two exhibits are ready now: The World of Life focuses on how living things function; the Creative World deals with the built environment. These exhibits will be followed by the World of the Pacific and Worlds Beyond.

“Our role has been to make sure that what is being presented is scientifically accurate and presents a correct view of the subjects,” said Maria Pellegrini, professor of biological sciences and dean of research in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, who consulted on the World of Life exhibit.

For instance, she recently checked on the exact length of a chain of condensed chromosomes for Combs. “He thought it was 6 feet long but wasn’t sure if that was the length when the chromosomes are condensed and doubled,” Pellegrini said. She checked her books and confirmed the length was, in fact, 6 feet.

William F. McComas, director of science education for the School of Education, has also consulted on the World of Life Exhibit.

The process of advising on biology issues, McComas said, gave the museum a chance “to hear from experts about whether the content is appropriate, and whether the mode of communicating that content is going to be effective.”

Garner said the committee initially brainstormed about the essential elements of the exhibit, then reviewed mock exhibits developed by a consulting firm. “We provided input on areas where we felt they had trouble, where the idea wasn’t coming across,” she said. “We felt it was really important for people to understand the basic idea of how cells work.”

MANY OF THE scientists said it was a challenge to figure out ways to hold the attention of people of all ages while explaining complex processes. “It made me realize that a lot of what we teach to graduate and undergraduate students is at a very high level. It was fun to think about how to educate the average person and how they would react to these exhibits,” Garner said.

The physical scientists particularly tried to make the exhibits appealing to children – the museum’s primary audience.

“Our idea was to make basic science involving concepts such as electricity and gravity accessible by relating it to housing, transportation and other elements of daily life,” said Michael Arbib, who holds joint appointments in computer science and neuroscience.

“We were trying to make certain aspects of engineering glamorous,” said Arbib, who consulted on the Creative World exhibit several years ago when it was in the early planning stages. “When you can show how much energy goes into the structures of the everyday world, children might come away seeing that concepts in engineering are pretty vital to their lives.”

The other USC faculty technical advisers, from the School of Medicine, were Zoltan A. Tokes (biochemistry and molecular biology), Laurence Kedes (biochemistry and molecular biology), Minnie McMillan (microbiology and neurology) and Alicia McDonough (physiology and biophysics). From the School of Engineering, K.G. Engelhardt (NASA Technology Transfer Center) also provided technical advice.

USC Scientists Team Up With Museum Creators

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