5:54 PM EDT, September 18, 2013
At the Museum of Science and Industry, past energy is amply represented. The Coal Mine exhibit is a behemoth, an all-star there for eight decades running.
But coal was then, or it ought to be if you believe the (advance-degreed, peer-reviewed) Chicken Littles who study climate science.
So it makes sense that now the Hyde Park temple to scientific showmanship is offering Future Energy Chicago, a new, permanent exhibit that aims to make us think about our energy choices and options.
The Coal Mine (closed this month for annual maintenance) is interactive in the old sense: You actually go into the replica excavation, although you don't come out sooty, or with black lung. Future Energy is about as contemporary as it gets.
Teams compete — via complex digital simulations, using touch- and hover-gesturing and real-world data that can be changed as the facts do — to build more efficient cars, design better neighborhoods, run cities most efficiently.
In comes the hybrid engine, out goes the internal combustion relic (if that happens to be your choice). In come bike paths, out go extra traffic lanes. In come LED and CFL, out go incandescent bulbs.
In comes wind, literally powerful wind, to the Windy City.
Teams rotate through five color-coded, differently-shaped video-screen stations, each given lots of space in the room's attractive, minimalist design. They are awarded points for the intelligence of their choices on the 24-foot-wide screen at the front of the room.
It's like "Grand Theft Auto" minus the misogyny, the criminal behavior and the violence. OK, it's not very much like "Grand Theft Auto" at all. It's a lot closer to the likes of "Sim City." It has clearly been designed with the gaming generation in mind.
Several facilitators are needed to keep it working, especially for younger participants needing to interpret a lot of data coming at them at once, and one of the helpers orchestrates the contest via WiFi with an iPad.
Said one of the fifth-grade demonstrators, a member of the winning team at Wednesday's opening, "At first we didn't know what to do, but then some teachers came over and we figured out we had to get the cars off the road."
Three years in the making, the exhibit is "unlike anything we've ever created and, for that matter, unlike anything we've ever seen in a museum setting," said David Mosena, the museum president.
Also fitting, as Future Energy opens downstairs in place of plumbing and energy-lab exhibits, is that the MSI in February finally closed Petroleum Planet, the main-floor exhibition that, long after "An Inconvenient Truth," celebrated oil usage as if it were a consequences-free party.
Big oil and traditional energy are still part of Future Energy. BP and the Exelon Foundation are sponsors. Coal, natural gas and nuclear energy are among the options participants have for running the city, as reflects reality. But the exhibit's introductory video, located in its "Energy Garden," is allowed to review Earth's power usage and future needs and say, "the ways we're using energy today are heating the planet, changing the climate."
That's a far cry from Petroleum Planet's boast that "The average American uses approximately 1,000 gallons of crude oil EVERY year!"
The Energy Garden, by the way, is soil- and sunlight-free, but its "exercycles" powering various lights are a wise option for kids waiting to be guided into the digital, interactive back half of the exhibition.
During its "preview" period (through year's end), the game-simulation portion will be open to field trips at 10:15 a.m. daily and then to the general public at 2 p.m. More times may be added next year.
The class chosen for the public demonstration Wednesday, Golden Apple winner Ron Hale's fifth graders from Hayt Elementary in Edgewater, didn't always seem to be grasping the objectives of the various exercises, and there was a learning curve to the hover-gesture controls.
Still, Hale came away convinced that "it's going to be eye-opening to students about energy," he said. "This is going to be with them for a while."
"It's very useful," said 10-year-old Kidus Aemro, shortly after building a highly fuel-efficient car thanks to its manual transmission and lightweight carbon-fiber body. "You can do this in reality, and it may help you reduce energy."
And if there is one thing that is known about students on field trips, it's that reducing energy is a good thing.
'Future Energy Chicago'
When: Open daily at 10:15 a.m. (school groups), 2 p.m. (general public)
Where: Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Dr. (773) 684-1414, msichicago.org
Tickets: Included in Explorer 1 package, $27 adults, $18 children
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