Nature Research Center rendering

A rendering of the exterior of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences' Nature Research Center

Imagine walking through a science museum and, among the usual displays of dinosaur bones, butterflies, and amphibians you come upon a series of windows into state-of-the-art research labs. Inside, scientists from nearby universities and veterinary schools work on projects related to biodiversity, genetics, nanoparticles, and animal health and welfare. In front of each window is a touch screen. Tap it, and you can learn about each researcher’s specific project and the tools with which he or she is working. A few minutes later, one of the scientists emerges to discuss the research with visitors and answer questions. The exchange benefits the scientists as well: some are PhD candidates learning how to communicate what they do to a broader audience.

One of the future "Meet the Scientist" labs, still under construction

Starting on April 20, visitors to Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences can see this concept in action. I toured the museum’s Nature Research Center, still under construction as you can see, on Friday along with colleagues attending the Science Online 2012 meeting. The older parts of the museum display scientific knowledge accumulated over hundreds of years, a sort of 3D encyclopedia, said Roy Campbell, director of exhibits, who lead the tour. “This new center is not about what we know, it’s about how we know,” he said. Science, he added, has been on the defensive, attacked by climate-change skeptics and creationists. Part of the mission of the new wing is to explain how scientists gather information and learn about the natural world. “We’re hoping to change the way science is taught,” said Meg Lowman, director of the new center, in an earlier talk.

A rendering of a "Meet the Scientist" space

A rendering of a "Meet the Scientist" space

Other features of the new center include a Citizen Science room, where visitors can sign on to participate in research projects together with scientists; hands-on labs, where they can stage their own open-ended experiments in collaboration with researchers and educators. Many of these projects may spawn new citizen science collaborations of their own.

The Raleigh museum is not the first to put scientists on display. London’s Darwin Center, Boston’s New England Aquarium and others also feature “scientists in action.” How do scientists feel about being on exhibit? One tour participant tweeted: "gonna be sweet exhibits! Though kinda scary to be a scientist on display in glass lab..." The changes do reflect a growing emphasis among educators on teaching the process of scientific inquiry and the nature of science itself.