Project helps kids see reality in scientific concepts

Ask an average American what a force field is and you’ll probably get a loose description of an invisible protective shield affecting some mission of the Millennium Falcon or the starship Enterprise.

Ask a physicist — who in the United States today is 90 percent more likely to be a man than a woman — what a force field is and you’ll learn it’s a vector field indicating the forces exerted by one object on another.

Ask a sixth grader, and if he or she can produce any definition, it’s likely a memorized assemblage of words lacking context or rich meaning.

An international team of educators and professionals based at Virginia Tech is working on giving middle-schoolers new and innovative ways to learn scientific concepts, such as force fields. Their goal is to encourage a lifelong interest in science among children, especially girls. This effort, which involves a planned children’s book and a traveling exhibition, is called Phoebe’s Field.


A rendering of a Phoebe's Field infinity concept. This rendering illustrates an architectural concept for the exhibit expressing infinity in the form and surfaces of space.

The project


Phoebe's Field electric concept One of many exhibit concepts considered for Phoebe's Field is that of electricity. Here, a perspective of how visitors might use a control panel to move or alter a field through a series of objects is shown.

The Phoebe’s Field exhibition will help enable children to identify, redefine, and make science part of their lives, ultimately facilitating a larger, more diverse scientific community. Research shows that in sixth grade, a significant shift occurs for boys and girls in relation to computing, math, and science.

In fact, only 44 percent of sixth-grade boys go online, while 79 percent of their female classmates do. Girls continue to be more engaged in communication technologies the older they get. At the same time, sixth-grade girls are found to become less interested in math and science.

Phoebe’s Field focuses on electromagnetic fields because of their intrinsic link to communication technologies favored by girls in this age group.


Visitors gain access to Phoebe's Field by wearing a special wristband. The Phoebe's Field exhibit uses a wristband for access. When visitors put their hand inside the access panel, they are able to enter and use the various rooms and exhibits. The wristbands also record data from an exhibit for evaluation.

The exhibition will use metaphors in nature to explain complex concepts, such as electromagnetism. As they tour the exhibition, students carry out physical activities that make the concepts more concrete. Phoebe’s Field enables children to see, hear, and touch fields that are ordinarily beyond their perception. The children will step inside fields, using communication technologies they know to make this most abstract of sciences real.

One way the exhibition will make invisible fields visible is by using architectural tactics.  The tactics were developed as a menu for transforming existing science museum galleries into a spatial field condition. In order to achieve the transformation creators tried to perceptually dissolve the boundaries of the museum, distort the threshold, and displace the ordinary galleries.


A Phoebe's Field wind exhibit concept This conceptual rendering of a wind room in Phoebe's Field incorporates a grid of rings and flags that respond as points in the field. They register the force and direction of the wind at each point. Visitors can move through the field and manipulate the various rings and flags.

The team also selected exhibit concepts to help communicate abstract phenomena to students. The concepts selected were based on an alliance between the science of fields, the storyline, and the relevancy to the students’ lives. By taking this approach, the Phoebe’s Field team created an architectural grid that was taken from the metaphor of an agricultural field to help engage the students and make the concepts easier to understand.

The storyline, for instance, uses narrative to capture the student’s attention. The narrative is designed to help the student associate Phoebe’s Field concepts to a quest and a story.


A Phoebe's Field magnetic floor concept One of the goals of the exhibit is to have visitors to understand themselves as part of a field; in this case, a visitor is part of a magnetic field within the exhibit. The floor responds to the visitor's movements in a magnetic fashion simulated by the visitor's wristband.

Funding and expansion


A concept of an electromagnetic field exhibit for Phoebe's Field An electromagnetic field exhibit deals specifically deals with the concept of electromagnetic signals such as those found in cell phones. The translucent wall in the middle of the exhibit indicates signal strength between visitors on each side of the wall who are using devices to detect signal strength through the wall.

The team is currently being considered for a third grant to fund the project by the National Science Foundation. The first two grants funded the planning of the book and exhibition. The third grant would make possible a four-year phase of the project that includes the creation of a 5,000-square-foot, mobile, traveling exhibition; technical manuals and training for installation; outreach components developed with the Girl Scouts; a website serving as an information hub for the exhibition; and a book documentary of the Phoebe’s Field creation process.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Heather Riley Chadwick at, (540) 231-2108, or Mitzi Vernon at, (540) 231-2763.

The team

    A concept model for Phoebe's Filed

The team is led by Principal Investigator Mitzi Vernon, associate professor of industrial design in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. 

At Virginia Tech, Vernon is joined by:

  • Katherine Cennamo, associate professor of instructional design and technology;
  • Margarita McGrath, assistant professor of architecture;  
  • Michael Ermann, associate professor of architecture; 
  • John Simonetti, associate professor of physics;
  • Tatsu Takeuchi, associate professor of physics;
  • Marty Johnson, associate professor of engineering;
  • Steve Ellingson, associate professor of electric and computing engineering;
  • Richard Goff, associate professor of engineering education; and
  • Janis Terpenny, associate professor of engineering education.

Key partners on the Phoebe’s Field team include the Paul Orselli Workshop and the Science Museum of Virginia.

Essential expertise

All advisors have served the Phoebe’s Field project for several years and bring essential expertise in physics, informal learning, engineering, gender studies, and children’s literature:

  • Ilan Chabay, Erna and Victor Hasselblad Professor of public learning and understanding of science at Chalmers University of Technology, Göteborg, Sweden;
  • Dale McCreedy, director of gender and family learning programs, The Franklin Institute;
  • Bruce Schena, engineering fellow at Intuitive Surgical;
  • Steven Snyder, vice president of exhibit and program development, The Franklin Institute;
  • Lynn Yanyo, engineer and director of global marketing, Lord Corp.; and
  • J. D. Stahl, children’s literary critic, professor, and author.

A collaborative effort

A project of this magnitude that has the potential to touch such a large number of lives has drawn a wide array of collaborators that are helping to ensure success. 

Find a list of the 34 students from Virginia Tech and Arizona State University who are or have been involved with Phoebe’s Field.

Other collaborators include: 

  • the Girls Scouts of the USA (outreach);
  • Resolution: 4 Architecture (project architecture);
  • Center for Children and Technology (project evaluation);
  • Gyroscope Inc. (exhibit planning),
  • the Exhibit Center at California Polytechnic State University (technology components),
  • the Association of Science-Technology Centers (tour management), and
  • the New School Media Studies Program (project documentation). 

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