Linux for Science Museums

Put your knowledge to good use by helping develop innovative, fun and educational exhibits for a whole new audience.

Over the past several years, my son and I have spent a significant amount of volunteer time creating exhibit software for the Sciencenter in Ithaca, New York. This article discusses how this project is similar to other software development projects, how it is different and how using Linux has been beneficial. It's not only about Linux or software; it's also about the processes involved, and what you may encounter if you have the opportunity to work in this type of environment.

The Target Audience

Science museum exhibit software must be designed with a different audience from the typical computer program, as the software generally is used in a different manner. My earlier Microsoft Windows-based exhibits—Measurement Factory and Fabulous Features—were designed for children up to approximately sixth grade, while the Linux-based exhibits—Sound Studio and Traffic Jam—were designed for fifth to eighth graders. The software must be simple enough that the target audience understands a significant amount of what they see on the screen and how it relates to the exhibit. A computer in an exhibit is not necessarily the exhibit; it may act as a guide or simply be another “manipulative” along with real-world objects.

A second “audience” also must be considered, the museum staff. Floor personnel (many of whom are volunteers) shouldn't have to be trained in the vagaries of each computer. Exhibit software and hardware also should come up and run automatically when the systems are powered on first thing in the morning, as museums tend to turn off at least some circuit breakers when they close in the evening. Trust me, you want the museum staff to like your exhibit—if it makes their life difficult, the exhibit may sit there with a sign saying “broken”.

The Competition

Possibly the most important thing to keep in mind when you're developing your dream exhibit is this: when you build a non-hidden computer into a museum exhibit aimed at younger visitors, you're competing with every video game they've played and every television show or movie they've watched. Your exhibit, therefore, must be extremely cool.

Measurement Factory is cool because visitors can weigh themselves, measure their height, test their grip strength, compare themselves to others of their age and get a certificate when they're done.

Traffic Jam (Figures 1-3) is cool because visitors can play with traffic lights and prevent traffic jams—or not, if they prefer.

Figure 1.

Figure 2. Heavy Traffic in

Figure 3. Changing Traffic Light Times in

Sound Studio (Figures 4-6) lets visitors record themselves and their friends on a multitrack recorder and play with simple special effects, such as echoes.

Figure 4.

Figure 5. Recording Using

Figure 6. Choosing a Special Effect with

Cool has a definite limit, however. For instance, it's not a good idea to make the “you made a mistake” annunciator—sound, animation, whatever—too cool; otherwise visitors will consider that the goal. Don't defeat the purpose of the exhibit.