2011 Annual Science Report

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Reporting  |  SEP 2010 – AUG 2011

EPO Activity: Cambridge Science Festival & MIT 150 Open House

Project Progress

This spring, the MIT team participated in a number of outreach events in Cambridge and the surrounding area: The Museum of Science Earth Day Open House; The MIT 150th anniversary Open House; and the Cambridge Science Festival.

At the Museum of Science event, E/PO Lead Phoebe Cohen led an activity called “The Timeline Challenge” – visitors were asked to place four events on an 8-foot long to-scale timeline of Earth history. The events were the formation of the moon, the evolution of life, the evolution of dinosaurs, and the extinction of Wooly Mammoths. A toy represented each event, and clues as to the correct placement of each toy were written on the timeline. Visitors were fascinated at how early life evolved on Earth, and how recently the Wooly Mammoths went extinct! Each visitor also got a bookmark version of the timeline to take home.

MIT celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion, the university held its first open house since 1980. Departments and groups all across the university presented public events, hands-on activities, lectures, and exhibits to the public on April 30th. The MIT NAI team participated with two events in collaboration with the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and the Youth Astronomy Apprenticeship Program (YAA). E/PO Lead Phoebe Cohen worked with Boston high school students enrolled in the YAA program over the course of the spring semester to develop three Astrobiology related exhibits for the EAPS open house displays. The first exhibit focused on the evidence for water on Mars, how its climate has changed over time, and why we think Mars is a good place to search for signs of life. The second exhibit was a model showing how one of the analytical tools that will be on the Mars Curiosity Rover, a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, actually works. The third exhibit explored the chemical patterns that life creates, and how those patterns can help us look for signs of life on other planets. EAPS graduate students and post docs helped explain the exhibits and talked with the public. We also gave away 200 copies of the first and second volumes of the Astrobiology graphic novels to eager visitors.

As part of both the MIT 150 celebration and the Cambridge Science Festival, we created a to-scale timeline of Earth history along 1/3 of a mile of Memorial Drive, the road bordering the Charles River on the edge of MIT’s campus. Thirteen signs describing important events in Earth’s history such as the formation of the oceans, the evolution of life, and the origination of land plants and animals, were spread out along the sidewalk. The signs were left up for the entire 8-day festival for the public to explore on their own, eight guided tours were offered on the weekends, and two classes of Cambridge 5th and 6th graders got a personal tour mid-week as well. Tour guides included PI’s Roger Summons and Ann Pearson, and graduate students and post docs from both MIT and Harvard. In addition to the physical signs, a complementary website was created with the original signs and additional content on all the timeline events. QR codes were put on each sign so tour-takers with smart phones could learn more on the spot as well. Thousands of members of the public passed the signs over the course of the week, and approximately 200 members of the public participated in a guided tour. The website is still live at www.complex-life.org/csf2011

A family works on the Timeline challenge at the Museum of Science

E/PO lead Phoebe Cohen at the Museum of Science’s Earth Day open house event

EAPS graduate student Sarah Lincoln demonstrates the model of a gas chromatograph at the EAPS MIT 150 open house event

Figure 4. ​A family learns about the Mars rover missions at the EAPS MIT 150 open house event

Signs Along the Geologic Timeline Tour

PI Roger Summons leads a tour of the Geologic Timeline