Energy Efficient Car- Today and Tomorrow

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Jennifer Schmidt

Published on March 02, 2011

  • Museum: Maryland Science Center

  • Visit Date: February, 2011

  • Description:

    The Maryland Science Center (MSC) offers outstanding exhibitions and programs for teachers, students, parents, and children. The topics presented range from physics, anthropology, biology, astronomy, and atmospheric science. Upon entering the MSC and viewing their exhibition guide and floor plan, I was immediately drawn to “Energy Efficient Car- Today and Tomorrow,” because of the indication that it features a hands-on exploration of alternatives to gasoline powered vehicles, inspiring a false sense that this is a cutting-edge, environmentally-focused exhibition.

    The “Energy Efficient Car- Today and Tomorrow” exhibition is located on the third floor, to the immediate right of the MSC’s main staircase. As visitors enter the small, oval-shaped, single-room exhibition space, they encounter a transparent car that provides visibility of various vehicle components, including engine and energy-related systems. The platform on which this car stands also houses two LCD-screens. Unfortunately, the LCD screen that is prominently displayed at the forefront of this centralized platform does not function as a touch-screen, as one might imagine. Instead, this screen only serves to display rapidly-transitioning, digitized images of a transparent vehicle similar to the one featured on the platform itself. It was disappointing to discover that this screen is not equipped with features that allow visitors to further engage with a virtual version of the car that is the focal point of the exhibition space. However, the second LCD-screen that is displayed along this platform is interactive, serving to provide visitors with a fuel economy savings calculator based on numerous travel estimates, gas prices, and gas tank size. Although the second interactive display is interesting, its entertainment value is limited in that providing a fuel savings analysis over a one to seven year period is its sole function, and the process of reaching this analysis is completed in approximately fifteen to thirty seconds. While present in the exhibition, I observed two adult visitors exploring the functionality of this display, only to input information for one or two calculations and then to walk away in under one minute.
    While the fuel savings calculator interactive display is clearly meant for an adult audience, the exhibition also contains two LCD touch-screens with content meant for a younger audience, presumably ages 4-10. Along the rear wall of the exhibition, two screens are placed at differing heights while featuring identical content. These displays enable young visitors to build a car using touch-screen capabilities. Several large components of an automobile are provided on the left of each screen while a variety of color options are provided on the right. The large automobile components include, but are not limited to: a hood, windows, wheels, trunk, doors, frame, windshield, lights, and engine. As a user selects each component and builds their car, a “fun fact” about that component is displayed in the lower right corner of the touch-screen. Following the completion, in part or in full, of a visitor’s vehicle, the user may select a color for their car from the options present on the right side of the screen. Although the only customization option presented for young visitors is that of the color choice they have for their vehicle, three young children appeared actively engaged with, entertained by, and excited about their ability to build something all their own while I was present in the exhibition. The youngest child, who appeared four years old, was aided by her father in building several cars from start to finish, and was upset by having to leave after five minutes of interaction with the display. Alternatively, another child, who appeared to be approximately eight years old, completed two cars before wandering around the exhibition and looking at some of the more traditional displays.
    Although an effort was made to incorporate technology into the “Energy Efficient Car- Today and Tomorrow” exhibition, several missed opportunities remain. The LCD screen at the forefront of the exhibition that simply displays various digitized images of a transparent vehicle would be greatly enhanced if visitors were provided the opportunity to highlight particular systems or components of the vehicle to determine what those components are, how certain systems work together, how they are influenced by various energy sources, or how productivity could be increased or modified if alternative energy sources were utilized. The interactive display featuring the fuel economy calculator could also be enhanced through the incorporation of additional input options such as vehicle make, model, and year, and the ability to compare savings for one category of vehicle (or energy source) with others. These changes would require alterations in the current design and functionality of these displays but would, arguably, significantly increase the level of engagement and length of time spent by visitors within the exhibition. Aside from enhancing engagement and length of visit, these modifications would be relevant applications of topical content that is otherwise absent from the overall exhibition. While the title and description indicate an exhibition that explores alternatives and environmentally-friendly alterations to gasoline powered vehicles, adjustments and transformation need to be made in order for “Energy Efficient Car- Today and Tomorrow” to live up to its name.

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