Center for Urban Health to Lead Research to Create a New Kind of Science Museum

Release Date: 
Sep 25 2013

The Center for Urban Health (CUH) at IUPUI will serve as the primary research partner on a $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create sites along Indianapolis waterways where arts and sciences will be used to educate the public about the local water system. 

Center for Urban Health“We’re creating the first science museum in Indianapolis, but it will not be a building. We’re using the city itself as a learning environment,” said Gabriel Filippelli, director of the CUH.

Filippelli collaborated on the grant proposal with Tim Carter, Ph.D., director of the Center for Urban Ecology at Butler University. The ongoing initiative Reconnecting to our Waterways (, a citywide grassroots movement dedicated to strengthening local waterways by strengthening neighborhoods, identified six local waterways for the “City as Living Laboratory” sites: White River, Fall Creek, Central Canal, Eagle Creek, Pleasant Run, and Pogue’s Run.

By spring 2015, sites along these waterways will host activities such as dance, music and poetry that will interpret scientific content. The project departs from the traditional, brick-and-mortar museum concept, and instead showcases the living, learning environment already familiar to urban residents, Filippelli said.

“We’re really trying to use the waterways to connect people in ways other than for commerce or transportation,” Filippelli said. “We want people in urban areas to learn more about their connection to the environment.”

The sites will have opportunities for community members to physically engage with work built by collaborations between artists and scientists. In addition, the project will be accessible virtually through a site-specific application for mobile devices and online sites, so temporary installations will have a life beyond the live performances.

Funding will go to the artists installing sites and also toward research and evaluation so the lessons learned from this project can inform future installations in other places.

“This innovative form of informal science learning—combining scientific content and artistic endeavors of sculpture, music, dance, and poetry—has the potential to reframe how future science museums around the country are constructed and programmed,” Carter said.

Goals of the project include helping residents to understand connections between their daily activities, the science of the city’s water system—where water comes and goes, where storm water flows, what lives in the water—and scientific thinking in general. Filippelli said he hopes it will provoke the public to ask questions and test their prior knowledge about their surroundings, which could result in a new appreciation for the waterways as an asset to neighborhoods.

“This will hopefully result in a new way that art is created and a novel approach to interpreting science” Filippelli said. “The aim is to creatively provide a way for people to engage with their waterway, learn about the water system adjacent to their neighborhoods, and understand that the city they experience every day is itself a living laboratory.”

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard also praised the project.

“This National Science Foundation grant will go a long way toward fulfilling my goal of improving Indy neighborhoods through trails, connectivity and enhanced waterways,” Ballard said. “This unique combination of art, science and trails will provide great new places for families, walkers, runners and cyclists to see out beautiful city and perhaps even learn a thing or two in the process.”

Other partners on the project include:

The project was one of 13 selected from more than 400 proposals. Grant requests could not exceed $3 million. 

Filippelli currently serves as a Jefferson Science Fellow to the U.S. Department of State, the first faculty member from any IU campus to be appointed to the position.  The Center for Urban Health, supported through the IUPUI Signature Center Initiative and the Office of the Vice Chancellor of Research, is designed to enhance health and sustainability for urban populations, with an eye toward both environmental legacies and emerging threats. Its central themes include environment, community and health.

The Center for Urban Ecology contributed to this report.