October 20, 2009

Golden Gate Bridge Awarded $3 Million in National Science Foundation Grant Funds to Promote Lifelong Learning of Science and Engineering

(Downloadable image of Artist Concept of Bridge Outdoor Exhibition)

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (GGBHTD), San Francisco, CA in coordination with the Consortium of Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering (CUREE), Richmond, CA was recently awarded a $3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. The grant was awarded to GGBHTD under the NSF Informal Science Education program whose goal is to promote lifelong learning of Science and Engineering in a wide variety of informal settings such as the Golden Gate Bridge (Bridge) visitor area.

According to Dr. Al DeSena, the NSF Program Director, Division of Research and Learning in Formal and Informal Settings, “The Golden Gate Bridge proposal represents an exemplary project that went through the rigorous NSF merit review process in competition with several hundred submissions in 2009. The project is innovative, involves a strong collaborative effort, and is expected to have an impressive impact on the learning of science and engineering by the public. We are pleased that the Bridge, an international icon visited by millions, will come alive with interactive educational exhibits.”



NSF Grant Amount: $3 million

Target Audience: 10 million+ visitors a year, website visitors, public works agencies across the USA

Intended Impact: Curiosity-driven learning about Science & Engineering about the Bridge

Strategic Impact Beyond the Bay Area: Engage an untapped resource—public works agencies across the entire USA—in advancing strategies for advancing informal science education




The Golden Gate Bridge (Bridge) south side visitor area currently offers very limited learning opportunities for its more than 10 million annual visitors. For many years now, there has been a strong need for a permanent outdoor exhibition at this site. The NSF-funded Golden Gate Bridge outdoor exhibition project, featuring a series of outdoor interactive exhibits, will build on the positive experience visitors already have and enable them to now understand the science and engineering involved in building the Bridge. Additionally, the GGBHTD website, with nearly 100,000 hits per day, will offer new and detailed content, related to the on-site exhibits.

The Golden Gate Bridge exhibition project’s primary outdoor exhibit will consist of a 92-ft-long scale model of the Bridge as a centerpiece or "table of contents" exhibit, to which are keyed 24 adjacent satellite exhibits relating to various engineering and historical features of the Bridge that the typical visitor does not realize is right before their eyes. The model and its associated exhibits will not only further the learning of engineering and history by engaging visitors, but ultimately further the goal of increasing the number of public works organizations in the USA providing informal science and engineering learning activities as well.

The content of the exhibits will be developed to assist visitors in understanding a variety of science and engineering concepts, such as:

  1. When the Bridge was built, it's two main towers were the tallest in the world at 746 feet and the suspension span between the towers was the longest ever at 4,200 feet. The height of the towers determines the amount of “sag” of the main cables as they curve down from the tops of the towers to the roadway deck, and this in turn determines how much tensile or pulling force must be resisted by the steel cables.
  2. The roadway is held up by 250 pairs of vertical suspender ropes, which are in turn held up by the two main cables. All of this weight is passed over the tops of the main towers and the towers in turn carry that load down through their foundations.
  3. The lifespan of the Bridge is continually renewed via ongoing maintenance and retrofit projects that go on behind the scenes without interrupting use of the Bridge.

The exhibits will:

  • Engage and surprise visitors with how enjoyably and easily they can explore science, engineering, and historical topics. They arrive as sightseers; they leave with a positive experience that piques their curiosities.
  • Engage both visitors who only stop for a short time as well as visitors who stay longer, including school field trips.
  • Be broadly accessible in terms of language, age level, and persons with disabilities.
  • Protect the historic and scenic character of the site, as guided by an architectural master planning study and coordinated with the National Park Service.



The Golden Gate Bridge project includes hosting an international conference in late June 2012 focused on public works as public learning. The conference will bring together experts and individuals from both the arena of civil engineering works and the informal science education world to further a common goal — communicating through a variety of means, including exhibits, the importance of our public works, and exploiting the learning potential of these ubiquitous features of our environment.

A number of other “iconic” facilities will be invited to participate in the conference and make presentations on their extensive and varied experiences with advancing the public’s understanding of science and engineering: Hoover Dam; Eiffel Tower; Museé des Egouts (Paris sewer system museum); Solid Waste Management Facility, Phoenix, AZ; Los Angeles Department of Water and Power; Penobscot Narrows Bridge, ME, and the Panama Canal to name a few.



The Bridge is an ideal touchstone for connecting a variety of research investigations undertaken over the last 70 years. The history of research involving the Bridge includes innovative structural engineering testing and mathematical analysis done as the Bridge was being designed in the 1930s, wind tunnel testing, worker health and safety, seismology and earthquake engineering research to guide retrofits that are presently underway, and more. The following will be produced:

  1. Technical paper – to include information about how over seven decades of research has been conducted to serve the needs of the Bridge, and which has also affected structural engineering around the world.
  2. Shorter documents - created for the general public and suitable for the GGBHTD website.
  3. Presentation at the conference noted above.
  4. Booklet-length “how-to” guide for development of effective public works exhibits.


As required by NSF, professional evaluators will ensure that the exhibition and conference meet their established goals and evaluate the extent to which the resources developed enhance visitors’ understanding of and appreciation for the Bridge and spur their interest in further learning. They will also measure the project’s impact on different kinds of visitors.



Lead Agency/Project Principal: Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, San Francisco, CA

Project Management: Consortium of Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering , Richmond, CA

Exhibit Development: The Exploratorium, San Francisco, CA, and The Sciencenter, Ithaca, NY

Wind Engineering Exhibit Development: West Wind Laboratory, Dr. Jon Raggett, Marina, CA

Scale model of Golden Gate Bridge: Professor Maria Garlock, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

Formative Evaluator: Inverness Research, Inc., Inverness, CA

Summative Evaluator: David Heil & Associates, Portland, OR

Site Master Planning: EHDD Architecture, San Francisco, CA

History of Research on the Bridge: Professor Sarah Billington, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA; Professor David P. Billington, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ; historian David P. Billington, Jr., Santa Monica, CA

Animated LIFETILE of Golden Gate Bridge construction: Eyethink, Rufus Butler Seder, Waltham, MA

Lead Technical Editor: Professor Thalia Anagnos, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA



Jill Andrews, Director, Office of Engineering Outreach and Engagement, University of Michigan

Cathy Frankel, Director of Exhibitions, National Building Museum, Washington, DC

Alan Friedman, The Museum Group, New York, NY

Chris Gallagher, Manager, San Francisco Bay Model Visitor Center, Sausalito, CA

Roy Griffiths, VP of Exhibits and Planning, North Carolina Museum of Life & Science, Durham, NC

Howard Levitt, Chief of Interpretation and Education, GGNRA, National Park Service, San Francisco, CA

Larry Lux, American Public Works Association, Plainfield, IL

Dr. Joyce Ma, Senior Researcher, The Exploratorium, San Francisco, CA

Prof. Stephen Ressler, Head, Dept. of Civil and Mechanical Engineering, U.S. Military Academy, West Pt, NY

Dr. Carol Willis, Director, Skyscraper Museum, New York, NY

Prof. Henry Petroski, Professor of Engineering and of History, Duke University, Durham, NC


PROJECT PARTNERS Nat’l Parks, American Public Works Assoc., Int’l Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Assoc.

Project Timeline 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Formative Evaluation Critique of schematic
exhibits & web
Coordinate w/
Summative Evaluator
Observation –
interview input on
Observation –
interview input on
Summative Evaluation Coordinate w/
Formative Evaluator
Obtain front-end
data from Formative
Observation –
interviews on
Participate in
conference; exhibit
& web usage data
Survey APWA
members; final
Exhibits Master planning and schematic exhibits Exhibit prototyping & development; site work begins Exhibits produced; installation begins; site work continues Exhibits installed, sitework completed Modifications to exhibits as necessary
Website Project announcement and project fact sheet Derive web content
from exhibit plans
Produce public web
pages from exhibit
publicity, registration
Adjust archived web content based on summative evaluator
Conference Venue/date
Liaison with APWA & IBTTA Preparations for
for/conduct conf.;
Engaging Public Works Agencies in USA Confer w/APWA advisor 1st draft “how to” guide Plan for 2012
National Public
Works Week; deliver
Conference; plans
for 2013 National
Public Works Week
Re-deliver course
National Public
Works Week, assist
Summative Evaluation
Public Understanding of Research Begin research Observation –
interview input on
Observation –
interview input on
Publish short/long
Versions; present at
Publish article
derived from report