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September 2005

NCAR's public face:
Mesa Lab tour guides share atmospheric science with the public

Roger and Karen

Richard Ordway, who volunteers as a public tour guide at the Mesa Lab, explains Earth's Coriolis force to a group of schoolchildren. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Richard Ordway was once leading a public tour of the Mesa Lab when one visitor posed a most unusual question: "When are we going to see the race cars?" the man asked, mistakenly drawing a connection between NCAR and NASCAR.

Although it's generally a safe bet that most questions will involve global warming, weather forecasting, and the like, giving tours at the ML means being prepared for anything. On any given day, tour guides might interact with weather buffs, scientists, schoolchildren, lawmakers, foreign diplomats, passing hikers, and more, from across the country and around the world. "Giving tours is always different," Richard says. "It keeps my brain sharp and keeps me young."

Visitors to the ML have the option of taking a free tour every day at noon, guided by staffers in Education and Outreach's public visitor program. Groups may arrange private tours in advance. About 10,000 schoolchildren and 4,000 adults go on tours each year.

The tours are one facet of the public visitor program, which also includes programs for school groups from preschool level through college as well as other educational outreach activities both on and offsite. The program got its start in 1986 when Rene Munoz, who is currently the coordinator, was asked to develop a summer visitor program. Ron Cox, who was director of the NCAR Library at the time, and Wray Freiboth, who was head of what was then called the Administration Division, asked Rene to expand to a full-time educational program when the summer ended. "It just grew from there," she says.

Today, the public visitor program has three staffers who give tours on a regular basis, in addition to Richard, who has been volunteering for seven years. The four are all certified interpretive guides through the National Association for Interpretation. Rene stresses that other staffers who are interested in volunteering in science outreach on both the K-12 and adult levels should contact her (ext. 1173 or e-mail).

Learning on the job

Richard leads noon tours at the ML several days a week. He became interested in weather as a child growing up in West Africa, where he observed how the annual monsoon affected the local mosquito population. Later he studied weather formally while pursuing his commercial pilot's license and master's degree in aviation.

"Giving tours is always different. It keeps my brain sharp and keeps me young."

—Richard Ordway

Richard's favorite thing about the job is that he is always learning. "I particularly like how it stimulates me to learn more about science and global warming," he says. "And I appreciate access to NCAR scientists who answer my many questions to help me give more informed tours."

In addition to learning from scientists, Richard learns interesting tidbits from people on his tours. For example, a farmer from Texas once told him that the number of screw-worm flies, which can thrive in warmer regions, has drastically increased on his farm over the last three generations. Although not confirmed by research, this could possibly be a sign of a warming climate.

Tim Barnes, who has been leading tours for eleven years, also says that the best part of the job is learning. "I learn about research from the scientists," he says, "while the people on my tours teach me about their perspectives and how to be a better presenter."

One of the interesting aspects of being a tour guide is getting to witness people's reactions to different exhibits. Tim recalls seeing a two-year-old completely obsessed with the tornado exhibit, whereas Richard says the dinosaur footprint is a big hit. "Kids go crazy when they see it," he says. The robotic data-loading arms in the computer room are also popular with children.

Adults are usually most impressed with the computer room and are especially interested in the climate change exhibit, since often they are unaware of how far climate change has advanced. "I find that adults are really looking for information," says former teacher Teri Eastburn, who leads tours and oversees the public visitor program's growing emphasis on inquiry-based science education in the ML classroom. "We also do a lot of high school groups, and it's amazing to me how many of the students are unaware of the issue of
climate change."

Making science accessible

As a former clinical psychology researcher, Tim worked with young children before coming to UCAR. He says that the experience crosses over to communicating science to adults, since both jobs require the presenter to eliminate complicated vocabulary and jargon while preserving accuracy and keeping listeners interested.

"Making those big black boxes understandable is a challenge," Tim says of the supercomputers. As a starting point, sometimes he'll describe a computer as "a plastic box full of wires and rocks [silicon] that counts from 1 to 10."

"What we're trying to do is help people do science in their heads as much as possible," he says.

The ML's exhibits include tactile displays for developmentally disabled and blind visitors. The building's setting itself is conducive to interpreting atmospheric science, since visitors can look out the windows for a fantastic view of the dynamic meteorological laboratory in the sky above the Flatirons. Or they can stroll outside to observe the geology and ecology of the mountains.

Rene says that one strength of the public visitor program is the way that the tour guides make an effort to customize tours for visitors. "We can make visits appropriate for different groups," she says. "It's a lot more work than just giving standard content tours, but we have such exceptional resources to work with." Customized visits might include information on specific research topics, interviews with scientists, presentations in SCD's Visualization Lab, architectural tours, and visits to other NCAR sites when appropriate. The fact that all the tour guides have expertise in different and complementary areas helps, Rene adds.

Thorny issues

One of the biggest challenges for tour guides is interacting with visitors who come on tours with agendas and preconceived notions, often regarding climate change, ozone depletion, or Earth's origins.

"I try to build my presentation based on what the scientific community knows so that it has veracity," Richard says. "I try to tell them what the evidence is, but it's up to them whether to accept it."

Tim says that it can be hard to diffuse conflict when people on tours have certain points of view and want to be heard. "You have to make your point, recognize their position, and explain that these are scientific truths as we know them," Tim says, adding that it's helpful at times to point out that NCAR does not make public policy decisions.

Teri says that more people have been confronting her about intelligent design and creationism in reference to Earth's age and past climate change. "We want people's experiences to be positive and we don't want to debate," she says. "But it's the nature of science that we're here to talk about and that has to be based on evidence."

• by Nicole Gordon

Also in this issue...

UCAR family-friendly benefits rank at the top

New leadership for EOL

2005 Up-the-Hill Races

Random Profile: Vickie Johnson

NCAR's public face: Mesa Lab tour guides

Short Takes

Construction begins on CG-FL bike path

Delphi Questions

Hurricane Katrina Challenge

Just One Look


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