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under an Informal Science Education grant, NSF ESI-0529213

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Projects : Civil Engineers & Science Museums
Building Bridges Between Civil Engineers and Science Museums

used with permission by the
Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District


With funding from the Informal Science Education branch of the National Science Foundation, CUREE, Consortium of Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering, is conducting a project to build an ongoing network connecting civil engineers and science museums to the mutual advantage of both communities.

The most critical continuing impact of the project will be the establishment of an ongoing network (called here the Network of Science Center and Engineering Professionals, or “the Network”) between the civil engineering community and science museums or centers. Thus, the outcome of this project will not be “one-shot” products that only reach an initial target audience; the project’s deliverables will extend more broadly.

1. The Audience: The Two Professional Communities to be Involved in this Project
Science and technology museums and science centers are staffed by professionals who know what works in their particular facility and program--for example, what is understandable to and engaging for the audiences that have been identified as their particular visitors and the clientele they seek to serve. The engineering community, which here means the civil engineering field and more particularly structural and geotechnical engineering, is typically remote from this knowledge of the museum’s users and the needs and the constraints within which a science museum operates, but the engineering community is intimately involved in the creation and application of knowledge in this field.

Science museums and centers may not have professionals on staff who are expert in a given field research, but they know how the Public Understanding of Research works. The experts, the civil engineers in this case, know what the current research and applications are and can separate high-quality from low-quality information and explanations, but sometimes they display what might be called the Researcher’s Misunderstanding of the Public Understanding of Current Research. That is, they sometimes assume that the public is fascinated by and can understand the complex or detailed findings that may be of interest to the experts, taking their own well-developed conceptual foundation of their expertise for granted.

Thus, we have two very different sets of backgrounds and goals between these two communities, and spanning between them is not a collaborative process that automatically occurs. Indeed, although it has been done in exemplary fashion and that expertise is represented on the project’s Steering Committee, as a whole, engineering has done a poor job of presenting itself to the public via science museums and centers as compared to the more pure sciences such as astronomy or earth sciences, or applied sciences such as genetic engineering that appear frequently in the headlines. Yet, there is great potential in linking “content-rich” knowledge producers (the engineering field in this case) with “audience-rich” organizations (the museums and other informal education centers). (Ucko, 2001)


This project proposes to take the first steps in establishing a consortium or Network linking the science museum/science center community and the civil engineering community to enhance the way the public learns about civil engineering, a field that deals with what the public is immersed in every day--buildings, bridges, utility systems, and the other works that civil engineers create. Structural engineering and geotechnical engineering are the two primary professional/academic disciplines within our scope. An emphasis will be placed on earthquake engineering, a sub-field of civil engineering that has great potential for introducing excitement as well as challenging quantitative learning into exhibits, presentations, websites, and other museum programs.


The project will conduct a survey of current practice among science museums/science centers to compile a preliminary catalog. The Project Team will then evaluate the results and meet to conduct a preliminary design of ongoing Network services—sustainable ways to meet mutual needs of civil engineers to better express their research and practice and science centers to allow their users to better explore this field. Such candidate activities could include email notification of area engineering conferences for in-person “ask an engineer” visits; maintaining the initial project catalog into a worldwide updated web-based catalog; provide a clearinghouse of school science and math curriculum to solicit input from engineers for museum exhibits to fit those needs. The Project will then hold a workshop to present plans and obtain critical input from the science center community to finalize the Network design and recruit charter members.


Science Museums and Civil Engineers were invited to participate in our online survey.

© CUREE. All rights reserved.
Consortium of Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering
last updated 06.05.15