FISHERS, Ind. (AP) — A living history museum that is better known for its blacksmiths and buggies than for science and engineering hopes to become a new model for museums through a project designed to increase interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
The Conner Prairie Interactive Historical Park in Fishers has received $2.3 million from the National Science Foundation to find a way to encourage history museums to incorporate science and the other often daunting fields into their exhibits.
The three-year venture will revolve around a science lab called "Prairie Science," the Indianapolis Business Journal reported (http://bit.ly/NWlFXa ).
As families and school groups study displays in the 2,500-square-foot lab exhibit, Conner Prairie will study the visitors to gauge their interest and learning.
The grant is a rare one for history museums. Wyn Jennings, the science foundation's grant's program officer, said the foundation decided to explore history museums as an alternative way to drive people into STEM fields.
"This is a new thing for us, and the reason we were interested in doing it, (is) people learn things in different ways from different sources," Jennings said.
As part of its project, Conner Prairie will install a wind- and water-energy exhibit in its lab. Children will be able to learn how a wind turbine works, then see one operate in the exhibit area.
Conner Prairie officials noted in their grant application that history museums and science museums have different approaches.
History museums tend to have story-based styles of informally educating the public. Science museums focus more on hands-on activities, many of which can have multiple outcomes.
"Science centers make free use of history to communicate the principles of science," Conner Prairie CEO Ellen Rosenthal said. "And history museums stay as far away from science as possible."
There is "a valuable learning dynamic in each that has yet to cross over," the grant application said.
Cathryn Ferree, Conner Prairie's vice president of exhibits who is overseeing the project, said the lab's broad energy themes will give employees flexibility in what they can set up.
"We want to expose kids to the STEM subjects and spark an interest when they're younger, not when you're taking your first chemistry class in high school," she said.
The project will include museums in Wabash, Ind., Mystic, Conn., St. Paul, Minn., and Sacramento, Calif., as partners.
Those museums will receive exhibits focusing on one of the themes featured in the Conner Prairie energy-oriented lab.
The Wabash County Historical Museum in Wabash has a display highlighting its history as the first U.S. city to use electric street lights.
Conner Prairie's development of the STEM aspect of the electric lights should draw in other crowds, especially from schools, said Tracy Stewart, executive director at the Wabash museum.
"I can make links, I can go through and pull out scientific facts from the museum," Stewart said. "But it makes it easier to know, 'Oh, I can take a seventh-grade science class now to the history museum,'" because of the scientific model Conner Prairie will help implement.
Information from: Indianapolis Business Journal, http://www.ibj.com