By Samuel Speciale | April 30,2015 | Charleston Daily Mail
It wasn’t the first time Lewis Ferguson entered the trailer, but familiarity did little to dull his sense of wonder.
As he pushed his way through the heavy, plastic partition and entered a dark room lit only by the soft glow of panel screens and a chilly blue florescence emanating from the walls, Ferguson took in his surroundings with a childlike grin.
“It feels like I’m in the movie ‘Tron,’” he said tracing his hand along the wall, following what looked like glowing circuitry lines on a computer chip. As he looked around, overhead speakers were filled with a series of beeps, like those made by a navigation terminal aboard the starship Enterprise.
“This is pretty amazing,” he said.
What looks and sounds like a spaceship from the inside is actually a new mobile exhibit called “Power Your Future” that the Clay Center revealed Thursday at a ribbon-cutting and press conference.
The $1.2 million exhibit, housed in a trailer and pulled by a truck powered with compressed natural gas, is an innovative education tool Clay Center officials hope will interest new audiences of children with science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“The main focus of this exhibit is to provide STEM education opportunities to schools across the state,” said LeAnn Cain, public relations specialist for the Clay Center. “We hope it will encourage kids to pursue these areas of study when they go to college.”
Cain said the exhibit will travel to schools around the state and provide teachers with a hands-on experience that will show students real life applications of things they are learning in the classroom. It will embark on its first visit next week.
While the exhibit blends many different science, engineering and math concepts into one educational experience, its focus is on natural gas
extraction, an industry on the rise in West Virginia believed to be a cleaner, alternative energy source to coal.
The exhibit will introduce students to extraction of that resource through a series of interactive games that will take them through the processes of geological mapping, mining and land reclamation.
Ferguson, education director for the Clay Center, said the games were developed to encourage students to consider further study in STEM fields.
“It’s not a scary thing,” he said. “They can get involved, and hopefully go on to pursue careers here in West Virginia.”
In a demonstration of the exhibit, Ferguson and Cain showed off about 10 activities students can go through when the trailer visits their school.
“This one’s my favorite,” Ferguson said as he approached a terminal called “Reclaim the Land.”
The activity, a simulation game modeled after “Farmville,” shows the user how land can be reclaimed when resources have been completely extracted from the ground beneath. The simulation gives the user a tract of land, a $75,000 budget and approximately 60 seconds to design a park, wildlife habitat or a farm.
Ferguson chose a park and, as if he had practiced beforehand, quickly began tapping away at about 50 plots, planting trees, building a lake and setting up picnic areas.
As the time ticked away, so too did the money.
“Seventy-five thousand (dollars) sounds like a lot, but it goes quick,” Ferguson said.
With 10 seconds left, Ferguson planted his final tree with a remaining balance of $17,500, an amount he admitted was significantly more than was leftover on previous attempts.
Ferguson said the blended learning simulation uses a topic like land reclamation to deliver math and science problems that require critical thinking. How a student responds can determine whether or not they need additional help in the classroom.
“If a class comes in and they’re all going over budget, that could be a sign the teacher needs to have a follow-up lesson when they get back to the classroom,” he said.
Other activities include a puzzle game that has users match geological sections of the Earth’s crust and mantle, a questionnaire that helps users identify with a potential career in science or engineering, a music game that demonstrates how seismic waves can be used to map geological subsurfaces and a chemical categorizing game styled after the popular mobile phone game “Fruit Ninja.”
The exhibit has a capacity between 20 and 25 students, depending on the age group.
The exhibit is part of a larger Clay Center educational initiative funded by a challenge grant from the Energy Corporation of America Foundation, which was later matched by the EQT Foundation, Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Hearst Foundation, XTO Energy and the West Virginia Commission on the Arts.
It was developed by the ROTO Group, a Dublin, Ohio-based museum exhibit production team, with feedback from student-focus groups. It’s intended for middle school students, though Cain said upper-elementary and high school students would likely enjoy it as well.
Clay Center officials already have scheduled school visits through May. The exhibit also will be showcased at several fairs and special events this summer. When it’s not on the road, Cain said the exhibit will be stationed in Charleston at the Clay Center.