An interactive exhibit for demonstrating ocean acidification

One of the challenges faced by all researchers when writing a NSF proposal is providing substantive broader impacts beyond the research outcomes themselves. Resisting the expeditious fallbacks of creating a webpage or speaking to community groups, I contemplated developing an ocean acidification exhibit for spectrUM, our on-campus science museum ( If we can’t bring Montana to the ocean why not bring the ocean to Montana? The spectrUM director (Holly) was receptive to the idea and wrote a strong supporting letter. We subsequently proposed the exhibit within the Broader Impacts section of an Arctic Observing Network (NSF-ARC) proposal, with a budget of $10,000. The proposal was funded and the panel and reviewers specifically mentioned the exhibit as one of the proposal’s strengths.

With funding in hand, the challenge now was to create a working exhibit from my vague original concept, i.e. to show a pH change in the “ocean” by changing the CO2 in the “atmosphere”. There was no room for trial and error so hedging my bets and crossing my fingers, I chose to use a f lowing stream (a river) to enhance gas exchange and have the atmosphere switch from 100% N2 to 100% CO2. Additionally, it was important that the ocean basin have a sufficiently small volume to show pH changes over a short time (< 1 minute). Enlisting the help of spectrUM’s exhibit craftsman (Jason), a local electronics expert (Doug), and my long-time research technician (Cory), the idea became a reality, complete with sensors for “ocean” pH and “atmospheric” CO2 and miniature figurines strolling on the ocean beach. Unfortunately, the ocean pH, projected on a large screen using a wireless transmission, did not change with addition of pure CO2 to the headspace. However, bubbling the CO2 into the river and placing the pH electrode directly in the river outf low gave measureable pH changes. The kids don’t seem to care about these technical inconsistencies, but have focused on the control of the atmosphere by pushing the red (CO2) or blue (N2) buttons and watching the pH response.

It has been a surprisingly big hit. Through spectrUM’s field trips, clubs, camps, public hours, and birthday parties, 4,440 people have viewed the exhibit over the first 8 months. Of those served, approximately 1,000 were adults and the remaining 3,440 were preK-12th grade students. Over 15% of the visitors were Native Americans, Montana’s largest minority group. The exhibit continues to have daily visitors. For those interested in building their own Ocean Acidification exhibit, the plans can be found here.

Mike DeGrandpre, Ocean Carbon and Biogeochemistry News, Fall 2013. Article.

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