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Science Center’s ‘Solarville’ proves knowledge is power

SolarvilleTwo young boys grip their handlebars as they peddle a furious pace of 20 mph, breathlessly arguing who will win the race. One furrows his brow as his older brother stands behind him and yells, “Go faster!”

Although it is summer and school is out, these boys are not competing in the 115-degree Arizona heat. They are racing inside, on stationary bikes, and the winner is the boy who is the first to generate enough kinetic power to illuminate an incandescent lightbulb.

Using kinetic energy to power light bulbs is just one display of the Arizona Science Center’s energy-focused gallery, Solarville, which teaches visitors the processes and functions of renewable energy resources.

The five-year-old gallery, located on the museum’s fourth floor, is a long, narrow hallway with graphic art and interactive displays that explain the processes and uses of energy from the sun, wind, algae and even manure.

David Rock, the museum’s director of exhibits and collections management, said understanding energy sources is important in a modern, fuel-driven society.

“We definitely wanted to bring the concept of energy to the forefront,” Rock said. “It is a quickly evolving concept, but it is also undeniably essential regarding our day-to-day lives.”

Solar energy has become more popular in recent years as the climate change debate brings attention to renewable sources. The Science Center itself uses solar panels as an energy source.

Rock said Arizona’s ability to sustain solar energy as a resource allows the gallery to maintain a connection to its home state.

“You can tell from the name ‘Solarville’ that solar energy is big, particularly in this area, because we have a lot of access to that option here in Arizona,” Rock said.

However, while the gallery’s title is Solarville, solar energy is only a portion of the display.

Other sections of the galley explain how different materials absorb heat and how scientists can break down cow manure into usable energy.

Another section features the ASU Algae Project, which has studied the potential conversion of algae as energy at the University’s Polytechnic campus for more than two decades.

Rock said the Science Center and ASU work as partners throughout the museum to maintain an Arizona theme for visitors.

“We like to bring that local aspect into play,” Rock said. “Whether they (visitors) are from here or out of town, there’s a tie to the local atmosphere here.”

Annually, approximately half a million people visit the museum, with 146,000 coming from local schools. The majority of these visitors will tour the Solarville gallery.

“We highlight the systems that science has proven to be of focus in modern times, but the process through which these systems are managed is changing all the time,” Rock said. “We want (visitors) to be as well-informed as they can be.”

Because the platform for renewable energy sources is constantly evolving, Rock said the museum will begin updating the gallery this year.

“We want to make sure that everything is up to date,” Rock said. “It is a field that is moving very quickly, so we’re going to be utilizing the sources of our community partners again.”

Although details of Solarville’s update have yet to be finalized, Rock said the gallery will maintain the same educational value for future visitors interested in renewable energy.

“We want the same thing from this gallery that we try to derive from all the others,” Rock said. “We’re trying to inspire, to educate and to engage curious minds under one particular theme, and that’s energy.”

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