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Museum brings prehistoric animals back to life

A computer generated image of prehistoric animals that lived in Florida.
A prehistoric sample of the 92 computer generated simulations of animals at the EcoDiscovery Center. In terms of scale, the Megatherium (smiling giant sloth on the far right) stood at a height of 20 feet or 6 meters when upright. That's over three times higher than a tall human. Click on the image to find out the names of these 'menacing' creatures. Image courtesy University of Central California.

In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA, a new 34,000 ft2 (3,159 m2) EcoDiscovery Center will let the public interact with 92 simulations of prehistoric animals and fish for the first time. There will also be a 50 foot long (15 m) life-size model of a Megaladon, an ancient giant shark. Visitors will be able to enter the cavity of the shark and take photos while looking out of the Megaladon's mouth.

Museum visitors will have the chance to manipulate a large map of Florida that shows how climate change could impact the state's water supply and the vital role that the Everglades plays in safeguarding that same water supply.

Funded with a $2.9 million National Science Foundation grant, the project is four years in the making and was built in partnership with the E2i Creative Studio, a science communication laboratory at the University of Central Florida's Institute for Simulation and Training.

Those involved in the project include the University of Central Florida alumni and faculty staff members, as well as students from Digital Media, Modeling and Simulation, Computer Science, Biology and Statistics.

"This is why I came to the University of Central Florida," said Eileen Smith, director of the E2i Creative Studio. "We can do so much to help families learn about science and math in fun ways at a museum, and technology can be a great tool to connect learners with each other and the topic. They don't even realize at first that they are learning," she said.

The exhibition team conducted research into the past, present and future of Florida. They created 10 exploration and learning stations to simulate the behavior of 92 animals from Florida's past. Each of these stations tells a story, such as how forest fires impact the Everglades, how the hydrological cycle works and what impact foreign species has on native species.

An artist's impression of a visitor interacting with simulations at the EcoDiscovery Center
An artist's impression of a visitor interacting with animated simulations in the foreground and real life otters swimming in the background at the EcoDiscovery Center. Image courtesy E2i Creative Studio.

Visitors can select fully animated simulations of these animals, that are designed to show the relative size of the prehistoric creatures relative to the visitors themselves, and how they may have moved through either their aquatic or terrestrial environments.

The interactivity doesn't stop there. A horizontal model of Florida enables visitors to manipulate the hydrological cycle and wet and dry seasons, to see how Florida's water availability is changed.

Even though the scale of these simulations is large, the computing infrastructure is not.

"The computing hardware is as powerful as a current day gaming console - think Xbox 360 - and the value of these designed simulations in Water's Journey through the Everglades is to produce learning experiences that do not require high-performance computers or extremely high end machines to drive the technology," said Smith.

The primary target audience of the exhibition are adolescent learners, and the researchers will evaluate how well the exhibit connects with the teenagers and their families. There is a lot of anticipation about the simulations too. Smith said, "one of our local schools, Hiawassee Elementary asked for one of the stations to immediately be available for them. They said the hydrologic cycle simulation was the perfect way to have their students learn about the closed cycle of water here on earth... they were extremely excited by the prototypes they played with."

On November 5, a gala will be held for 600 museum patrons and the grand opening for the public will commence on November 11th to the 13th. Over 6,000 people are expected to attend over those three days.

- Adrian Giordani

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