HURON - The new visitors center at Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve has a new look and interactive exhibits. And now it goes beyond education to encourage people to become involved in
solutions to environmental problems.
"These aren't just things scientists tackle, these are things people must tackle and help to change," said Ann Keefe, education coordinator.
She invited children and adults to spend a day exploring state-of-the-art educational displays at the Devine Center for Coastal Wetland Studies.
After being closed much of 2011, the visitors center is open again with a new look.
The former flat-panel displays that people simply walked through and read have been replaced with up-to-date hands-on exhibits that allow visitors to delve deeply into understanding the estuary and its purpose in the environment.
Or they can just pass through and get a basic overview.
"We had to completely empty the building because we had to do some minor renovations," Keefe said.
Some of the former exhibits were updated and added back into the mix.
"We recycled as many of those as we could and donated them to other non-profits," Keefe said. "The old exhibits were good and informative. But as you learn new things over time you have to incorporate new information."
Keefe said the new exhibits offer a more life-like approach by using "real" animals brought to "life" through taxidermy and "real" plants from the estuary that have been preserved, as well as a few live animals.
As one advisory board member noted, "Kids will always interact better with a live fish than with a plastic fish," Keefe said.
"That's what led to us using a few live animals," she said.
Included are a toad and a leopard frog that kids can search for in their exhibit habitat.
"The snake for the most part is always out there for everybody to see," she said. "And we try to feed the turtle while kids are watching."
Visitors also can touch the fur on animal pelts.
"People react to things differently and learn in different ways," Keefe said. "We wanted to appeal to the different ways people learn, appeal to all the senses."
Keefe said most exhibits are interactive, requiring a response from the person, which is "especially important in today's web-based society."
"The challenge of the exhibit was to capture the attention of the young people, but also keep older people interested," Keefe said.
"There are things for kids to do with animated fish swimming across the screen, but there's also text along the side that contains the details," she said.
"One is a game that allows people to make choices in virtual reality and see the results of those choices," she said.
For example, someone can choose to recycle or not to recycle and the game wall changes to reflect that choice by making the "water" cleaner or dirtier.
The game then asks people to pledge to make good choices and get involved in conservation areas of interest. It even provides contact information so people can get started.
"What are you doing to make difference?" Keefe said. "The virtual game is built 100 percent on that assumption."
For instance, if somebody indicates they're willing to help restore a wetland, they will be emailed contacts so they can get started.
"Our visitor's center is just helping people connect the dots," she said. "Learn a little bit and find out what's next."
"It's not so much teaching people," she said. "It's letting them know how they can take what they learn and do something with it."
She said some might be interested in assisting at a recycling center. Others might have interest in restoring wetlands. And still others might want to put up a bird-feeding station.
There's a weather center that shows things like radar and water temperature and explains how information is calculated.
"But it also has a whole kids section that's not all built, but eventually will be," she said.
At the "Window on Wildlife" visitors are asked to record the birds they see in a daily journal.
"It's subtely interactive to encourage people to look in field guides to find the birds they're looking at," she said. "It's usually a birding window, but we've had deer feeding out there. And kids notice spiders hanging on the window instead of the birds. It doesn't matter what they focus on, they're learning about nature."
The center highlights the research being done by scientists.
"There are over 250 research projects going on," she said. "And every day there's a new person knocking on the door interested in a site."
In addition, there's a laboratory facility and dormitories for groups doing research projects.
"Through grants, we try to tackle new questions," she said. "Right now climate science is a big topic among NOAA, as well as habitat loss, water pollution and aquatic invasives (species not native to the area. Those are some of the prominent things that we're management in today's research of wetlands.
"It's a great place to come and connect with people who want to do more work and find out what's happening on the Great Lakes," she said.
In the future, Keefe said a smart phone application will be available so people can take a tour outside and get details through their phones when guides aren't available.
"We're using the tools of technology to help them understand things," she said.