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At a sneak preview of the new "Bill Nye's Climate Lab" exhibit at Chabot Space and Science Center, Bill Nye discussed the importance of teaching children about climate change.

New exhibit helps celebrity scientist teach climate change

on November 8, 2010

The Chabot Space and Science Center will take on climate change in a big way this month when it opens a new exhibit with the help of a little scientific star power. Science educator Bill Nye, popularly known as “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” came to Chabot on Friday to introduce the new “Bill Nye’s Climate Lab,” which opens to the public on November 20.

Nye, wearing his signature blue lab coat and bow tie, addressed a group of reporters on Friday as part of a sneak preview of the new exhibit. After an initial address from behind a podium, Nye led those in attendance from the exhibit’s entryway, which resembles a compartment in a space station, around the main 4,000-square-foot room. He explained that the purpose of the exhibit, which includes 30 interactive stations explaining different aspects of climate science, is twofold: “We want to show people how we discovered climate change,” he said, “and then we want to get people excited about what to do about it.”

While the exhibit has lessons to offer any visitor, its target audience is children. “When I say ‘people,’” Nye said, “I’m talking about people who are 10 years old.” Chabot Executive Director Alex Zwissler estimated that 190,000 children will visit the exhibit in its first year, including the 50,000 to 60,000 students who attend the museum on school field trips annually.

Nye is best known for his television show Bill Nye the Science Guy, which ran on PBS from 1991 to 1998, but he has been uniting science with comedy ever since he won a Seattle-wide Steve Martin look-alike contest while working as a mechanical engineer at Boeing in the 1980s. His flair for the dramatic seems to follow him off-camera, and he used it to explain the importance of the Climate Lab. “These people, the kids, will get their inspiration in part from this exhibit,” he told his audience, “so that we can—dare I say it?”—he switches to a mock-epic roar—“CHANGE THE WORLD.”

The Climate Lab is designed to raise awareness of global climate change; it presents the broad, though not unanimous, scientific consensus that the earth’s atmosphere is gradually rising in temperature due to a buildup of greenhouse gas emissions from manmade sources like factories and cars. Many climate scientists believe this trend could eventually cause such extreme phenomena as the melting of the polar ice caps and the desertification of currently temperate regions. The exhibit encourages visitors to better understand the scientific concepts behind global warming, and to be more conscious of their own role in the environment.

The exhibit’s stations are divided into three “natural” themes—air, land, and water—and two “human” ones: transportation, and buildings and infrastructure. Some focus on a scientific concept—illustrating wave motion, for example, with a large tank of water—while others, like the ice core sample replica, illustrate the tools scientists use to study climate. A third kind of station, often featuring interactive computer displays, helps visitors measure their personal impact on the environment.

Tamara Schwarz, the museum’s exhibitions manager, said the exhibit was designed so that it would “walk the walk” of environmental awareness. Many of its components—down to the carpet—were constructed by a local firm using recycled materials. A used bike on display was purchased via Craigslist.

Each station offers visitors some device to manipulate or a game to play, and in addition, a special ID card issued with one’s ticket allows guests to interact with the exhibit digitally. After a visitor creates a digital avatar, by playing the exhibit’s games, he or she earns points, which follow the person from station to station.

Bill Nye, known for his children's TV show in the 90s, points out 'Moe,' his Climate Lab avatar at the new exhibit named for him at the Chabot Space and Science Center.

Bill Nye, known for his children’s TV show in the 90s, points out ‘Moe,’ his Climate Lab avatar at the new exhibit named for him at the Chabot Space and Science Center.

Visitors can continue to play games from home on the exhibit’s website, which allows them to form groups and earn points collectively. Zwissler said he hoped visiting classes would use the site to stay connected to climate science. And though the points they earn will not yield prizes like at the arcade, they may be potent as a meter for bragging rights. “We can set up competitions,” he said, “so Mrs. Smith’s third grade will go against Mr. Johnson’s fourth grade, and so on.” The site is “designed to go viral,” Zwissler said. “We’re Facebooking, we’re Twittering, and we’re Yelping to get the word out.”

The Climate Lab is the result of three years of planning. Its content was created by a group of 30 advisors including Nye and UC Berkeley professors Inez Fung (an atmospheric scientist) and William Collins (an earth and planetary scientist), who, as members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore for their work on raising awareness of global climate change.

The exhibit’s focus on children is part of a strategy to affect the national dialogue on climate change, said Nye. “If you want somebody to quit smoking,” he said, “teach their kids about the dangers of smoking, because they won’t put up with it.” Nye believes the same principle applies to promoting environmentally sound habits. “What we try to imbue in the visitor is this habit of mind: Every time you look at something, I hope you will eventually look at how efficient it is,” he said. “Or rather, is there a way to make it less inefficient?

Nye acknowledged the value of popular campaigns to reduce personal consumption of plastic bottles, running water, electricity, and the like, but expressed hope that projects like the Climate Lab will inspire its visitors to consider more sweeping and creative solutions to climate change. “I want the next generation of engineers and scientists to think about big problems,” he said. “Skyscraper-sized problems, ocean liner-sized problems, freeway systems on a whole continent-sized problems.”

Zwissler said the time was ripe for an exhibit on climate change. “It’s the issue. It’s our moonshot,” he said. The issue is also personally important to Nye, who first encountered it in an astronomy class in college, as scientists began comparing earth’s atmosphere to those of other planets. He expressed frustration at the obstacles he’s faced in trying to present climate change in his work on television. Since the end of his eponymous show in 1998, Nye has appeared sporadically in other venues. He tried to take on “issues that don’t have an answer,” such as nuclear waste disposal, in his 2005 project The Eyes of Nye, but the show was short-lived. “You could literally find people at PBS who didn’t believe in evolution, let alone climate change,” he said.

Nye also believes the country has fallen behind the rest of the world in responding to climate change. “The climate deniers are unique to the United States,” he said. “There’s a contingent in Great Britain, but generally, when you travel the world, everybody talks about climate change all the time,” he said. In contrast, he said, many Americans “watch CSI, but they don’t accept scientific evidence.”

“Bill Nye’s Climate Lab” opens on November 20; as one of the museum’s permanent exhibits, it will be in place for at least five years. It can be visited during regular museum hours, Wednesday through Sunday. Museum admission is $14.95 for adults, and $10.95 for children age 12 and under. Those seeking more information can visit Chabot Space and Science Center’s website.

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