Museum brings natural disasters to Chicago

By Stephanie Saviola

The Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, unveiled its newest permanent exhibit, “Science Storms,” after five years of planning, designing and construction.

The museum opened the permanent exhibit on March 18.

The concept behind “Science Storms” is to display nature’s most powerful phenomena in a hands-on experience for visitors.

From the floor of the exhibit up to the ceiling there are displays of scientific and natural wonders. The three-story room was encompassed by dark blue walls. Sounds of thunder, rain and heavy wind filled the entries of the exhibit.

Upon entering the mammoth exhibit, guests are greeted with an abundance of visually pleasing displays of natural forces.

“We are always trying to re-ignite and excite people,” said Olivia Castellini, senior exhibit developer for the museum.

Castellini, who worked at the museum for four years and received her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wisconsin, said the storm exhibit is a first for the museum. She and her team included the public in the design process from the start of the project.

“We would take prototype versions of the exhibit out on the floors,” Castellini said. “We would ask guests about design considerations and tried out different wording for the explanations.”

According to Castellini, students from Chicago Public Schools were brought in to test the exhibit. There was also an adult advisory group composed of community leaders so they could get input from adults.

Beth Boston, public relations manager for the museum, said the turnout was excellent.

“By the time we were open, we had lines and lines of people,” Boston said.

The displays include a 40-foot tornado replica, a mock tsunami wave tank, a model of an avalanche disk and a very loud recreation of lighting on the museum’s ceiling.

The lightning is captured on a 20-foot Tesla coil that discharges 1.2 million volts of electricity. The lighting flashes every 30 minutes inside and the great voltage of each bolt resonates across the ceiling.

“I really liked it; I think it’s cool how you can control the tornado,” said Sebastian Ford, a 20-year-old Iowa State University student. “You can touch it and see it.”

The tornado replica is powered by an ultrasonic fog system beneath the museum’s floor. Visitors can control the air flow through levers on the side of the display.

“Each exhibit represents one aspect of physics,” said Rachel Hellenga, project director. “We are trying to engage visitors by doing science with no real learning curve. [Guests] can manipulate variables, record data and make comparisons.”

On the fire and combustion exhibit, there is a live fire and water display where visitors can control the size of flames and the amount of water dropping down above. The flame reaches up to 18 inches and is manipulated inside a fireproof glass box to show the interaction between fire and water.

During the creation process, Castellini said one of the challenges was building the large exhibit without changing any of the architecture of the more than

100-year-old building.

“We went out and found the best architecture and engineering experts to help with the project,” Castellini said.

Throughout the exhibit, there are interactive stations where visitors can recreate wave lengths, measure and record data and save it to their museum ticket by scanning it at the station.

There is a re-creation of a wind tunnel with a photo booth where guests can take pictures of themselves inside. Gusts inside the wind tunnels can reach speeds up to 80 miles per hour.  The pictures can be saved on visitor’s ticket stubs, also called their Scipass, which can later be retrieved online.

“Our goal is to give visitors control over these phenomena by relating it through physics and chemistry,” Hellenga said. “We are engaging visitors with no learning curve.”