A hands-on exhibit at New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center inspires the next generation of surveyors.

Scaled models of some of the world’s tallest and best-known buildings, including New York’s Empire State Building, are on display throughout the exhibit.

At the reinvented Liberty Science Center (LSC) in Jersey City, N.J., exhibits go beyond the conventional science center model and seek to actively engage visitors and impact society on a local, national and international level. The center focuses on interactive experiences that inspire lifelong learning. In the center’s Live Science program, visitors can perform a live surgery on a “vegetative” patient after diagnosing the patient’s mystery ailment, delve into the survival strategies of invertebrates through hands-on live animal presentations, or experience eye-popping films in what is reportedly the nation’s largest IMAX dome theater. With all of this innovation, it makes sense that an interactive exhibit focused on surveying would also find its home here.

The surveying exhibit is found in “Skyscraper! Achievement and Impact,” a 12,800-square-foot exhibit originally conceived by Helene Alonso, an LSC creative leader and project manager, as part of the science center’s ambitious 22-month, $109 million expansion that began in 2005. For the surveying portion of the exhibit, Alonso envisioned a permanent physical display where guests would be able to use surveying equipment for themselves. To explore the feasibility of such a plan, Alonso contacted Langan Engineering & Environmental Services headquartered in Elmwood Park, N.J., the survey, site/civil and geotechnical engineer for the center’s original design and expansion.

 In the “Walk the Beam” exhibit, visitors walk an elevated I-beam to experience the thrill of skyscraper construction.

“The excitement in the room was unmatched when the team unveiled the schematic interior configuration of the exhibit area and the plan for a survey exhibit,” says Joseph E. Romano, LS, a senior associate at Langan Engineering who oversees the surveying and mapping functions for the firm’s nine offices. “I remember the enthusiasm I felt first during my first survey class at NJIT, in Newark, N.J. More then 15 years later while working on the Liberty Science Center project, I felt the same enthusiasm.”

The development team at LSC, which included Alonso as well as designer Carlos Fierro and graphic designers Judeann Hook and Elizabeth Grotyohann, had designed an exhibit that encompassed various remote measurements, including details for horizontal and vertical survey observations. However, having never used or seen a transit or total station, the team was at a loss for the details that would be required for a hands-on exhibit. “After learning that the entire survey exhibit would be required to be fully operational by the visitors and that none of the results could be predetermined, we decided we required assistance from an equipment vendor,” Romano says.

The Tools of the Trade

Romano contacted John White, a long-time friend and local Leica representative. “John’s dedication to the surveying profession and to the education system is unparalleled,” Romano says. “He and Leica are supporters and equipment suppliers to many local educational institutions including NJIT and their surveying program.”

After meeting with the team and reviewing the goals and requirements for the exhibit, White suggested that the team use the intuitive Leica TCR703 (3-second) reflectorless total station with a red-laser-dot pointing scope as the exhibit's centerpiece. (White later recommended the Leica TCR705 [5-second] instrument instead.) During the exhibit, visitors would be able to make three distance and two angular observations and calculate three missing distances. To complete these tasks, the team proposed to have the total station set in the lobby area with the points to be measured located on portions of steel I-beams that were part of other exhibits, such as the “Walk the Beam” exhibit, in which visitors would walk an elevated I-beam to experience the thrill of skyscraper construction.

Langan Engineering’s graphics department developed a studio-generated 3D model of the proposed exhibit using Autodesk 3ds Max software. From there, the necessary equipment was secured from Leica and other suppliers, and a temporary exhibit was set up at the science center. In addition to the total station, equipment in the exhibit included a tripod, prism pole and tilting prism, various tapes, a Gunter’s chain, a measuring wheel, plumb bobs, corner markers and other small survey tools.

The next step was to complete a “hands-on trial,” which LSC staff would use to assess the feasibility of the exhibit and determine whether it would be a permanent display. The trial was conducted on a weekend in early 2007 as construction of the expansion area was under way. Overall, the exhibit was deemed a success. However, the team believed that having the visitors complete the measurements was too difficult. While the summary reports showed that visitors enjoyed the exhibit, the sensitivity of the total station coupled with the need for the operator to aim, adjust and focus was overwhelming for some. The team decided to change the surveying display into a “rolling exhibit” that would have scheduled experience times guided by an LSC staff member. This approach would retain the hands-on experience for visitors without the frustration of trying to figure out how to use complex surveying tools on their own.

The surveying activity in Liberty Science Center’s skyscraper exhibition introduces guests to a real-world application of math in everyday life.

An Inspiration for Learning

When the newly expanded Liberty Science Center reopened in mid-July 2007, the skyscraper exhibit was an immediate success. “This exhibition is impressive enough that it would merit its own visit,” noted a museum review in The New York Times shortly after the LSC expansion opened to the public.[1] A writer in Living Media described the exhibit as “the ultimate expression of human engineering” and noted that visitors would be “sure to leave this exhibit with a new appreciation and completely changed outlook regarding the impressive skyline that so many take for granted.”[2] Yet another reviewer called the exhibit “spectacular.”[3]

But perhaps the best reviewers have been the children who visit the science center. “The kids love looking through the total station and using the measuring wheel; it’s the hands-on thing,” notes Andrew Prasarn, one of the LSC science educators who presents the surveying exhibit. “We have scaled models of some of the world’s tallest and best-known buildings throughout the exhibit. Using the total station, each visitor gets to measure the slope distances to the base and to the top of one of the models and also record the vertical angle. Using trigonometry, we then calculate the horizontal distance to the base and the scaled height. Then we use pacing and the measuring wheel to the same building and compare our findings. The kids really get it and ask a lot of questions; the interaction is great. I hope it’s planting a seed and providing some vision.”

The proposed layout of the skyscraper exhibit at LSC.

The exhibit features a Leica TCR705 reflectorless total station that was donated to the center as well as a Sokkia 630R reflectorless total station purchased by LSC. The surveying activity is scheduled for peak periods when large numbers of visitors are in the building. Recently, the center decided to also take the activity on the road as part of its traveling science and math program. “This way, instead of just three to four people an hour getting to learn about surveying, we’ll be able to introduce up to 120 kids a day to the skill--it’s very exciting!” says Elizabeth Romanaux, vice president of communications at LSC. Romanaux notes that there might also be opportunities for engineers and professional surveyors to accompany the LSC team to talk directly to students.

“Workforce development in surveying and engineering, math, science, and technology is one of our nation’s most critical tasks,” Romanaux says. “The surveying activity in Liberty Science Center’s skyscraper exhibition introduces guests to a real-world application of math in everyday life, making their school work more relevant to young people. Additionally, students and parents alike will understand what workers are doing the next time they see surveying taking place along a road or at a construction site in their town.”

Romano, who had the opportunity to visit the exhibit recently, takes personal satisfaction in his role in seeing the exhibit come to fruition. “It is very rewarding to have been able to assist in providing today’s youth with a small but effective experience in the world of land surveying,” he says. “LSC board of trustee member William A. Tansey III, MD, could not have said it better: ‘Today’s childhood experiences do become tomorrow’s careers!’”

For more information about LSC or the skyscraper exhibit, visitwww.lsc.org. More information about Langan Engineering can be found atwww.langan.com. Additional links can be found in the online version of this article.


1. Edward Rothstein, “Touch Me Feel Me Science,” The New York Times, July ‘07.

2. Helene Dortheimer, “Daytripper: Liberty Science Center,” Living Media, Nov. ‘07.

3. Jayne Gould, “Skyscrapers? They’re Kid Stuff,” New York Daily News, Aug. ‘08.