Embedded in the exhibit

Our interactive exhibit pod and experiments mentioned in June 2016’s Dimensions magazine

As the nights draw in and the temperature drops with the fall into autumn in here in the UK, a trip to Tampa, Florida in late September could be seen by some as an excuse to stock up on Vitamin D! Team members Andy Lloyd and Dr Hannah Rudman enjoyed a few moments in the sun in Tampa, whilst spending most of their time at ASTC 2016, the annual international conference for the Association of Science and Technology Centers.


astc2016tweetThey presented to c. 70 Science and Technology professionals interested in the interactive research pod, and the data and ethical consent gathering tools that we have “Embedded in the Exhibit”. The pod was also mentioned in the opening article of the June 2016 edition of Dimensions, the quarterly glossy magazine of the ASTC community which was given away to all conference participants.

Nicole Stott painting in space

The wider conference was launched by a lively and inspiring opening session that included “artistic astronaut”, Nicole Stott, the first person to paint a work of art in space! Her commitment to ensuring creative approaches are a part of scientific endeavour mirrors our aspirations.

Claire & Tim Peake…

Team member Dr Claire Bailey-Ross met another astronaut just a few days later at the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres’ 2016 national conference. She presented a Pecha Kucha about our project to c. 120 attendees, including UK astronaut Tim Peake, who was looking particularly 2D since his return from space…

Back at ASTC 2016, Linda Conlon, ASTC’s board chair (and chief executive of the International Centre for Life), then discussed why science centres must engage with refugees and migrants and rethink their business models if they are to survive and meet the needs of future audiences. Her key themes included the “new divide” between those who see an open world (with globalisation and technological change) as broadly beneficial and those who see these forces as threatening and destructive. The new politics of our age will not be “left versus right” but “open versus closed.” This idea links to the ASTC supported International Science Center & Science Museum Day 2016 experiment: a global citizen science observation of clouds. Science Centres and Museums all over the world are encouraging the general public to  take images of clouds with their own devices between 1-22 October, then upload them via the Globe Observer app. The citizen science data will be shared with NASA to help them generate a global visualisation of cloud cover.

Back in the UK over the summer, we collected 2814 sets of data with ethical consent granted, a 79% acceptance rate from the general public to use their data for research. We are interested in how our research pod which is obviously already a popular science exhibit and research observatory, can begin to be used for/with citizen science projects. We are excited to consider how data generated and given ethical consent by the general public at the International Centre for Life can co-operate with and compliment official data, and can be shared openly.

Practical science and the messy data of children’s building blocks

Scientific theories can often be elegant, but the underbelly of scientific research is frequently messy, tiring work, and thoroughly inelegant. This is data collection. The same is true of cooking. No matter how beautifully planned a recipe can be on paper, inevitable practicalities always require pragmatic choices in its preparation. In carrying out our own data collection for the collaborative condition of our physical experiment at Newcastle’s Centre for Life, we encountered the challenging and thought-provoking practicalities that arise when working with children in the sometimes chaotic, constantly moving environment of the gallery floor. These are our experiences.

The data we collected are messy, in other words they are variable. Our idea was to get two, three, or more children to stand around a table and work together (the collaborative condition of our physical experiment) to construct something in the centre, using wooden blocks. This rarely occurred. Instead, with the provision of a footstool for smaller participants, the children frequently clustered around the protruding ‘peninsulas’ of our table. Or alternatively they took no permanent position and instead darted to and fro around the table’s edges to occupy different vantage points on their constructions, almost as bees construct their hive.

Messy data means there are multiple variables at play in each building group we observed. Children’s ages and sexes varied, as did their relations to each other (siblings, friends, strangers etc.). It is the job of data analysis to separate these variables out by comparing one group to another. We need this analysis because of a trade off we made between control over the experiment and the relevance of the experiment to the ‘real’ environment. By using children’s participation in a science centre exhibit as our experiment, we abstracted only somewhat from children’s ‘natural’ interactions with museum exhibits. We can therefore claim high relevance to the environment (‘ecological validity’), but we accordingly need intensive analysis after data collection to distinguish the variables at play.

In fact the varied behaviours of the children we observed appeared so interesting and accessible for data collection that we drew up a simple list of familiar behaviours (an ‘ethogram’) which we could note down as and when we saw them performed by the children. This neatly illustrates our pragmatic approach to data collection since the original idea was to focus just on the things children created from blocks. Among other variables, we collected information about where around the table children were standing, whenever they copied from each other, and each time they discussed their building or gave instructions.

By expanding into recording behaviours we hope to make use of these extra data to illuminate different perspectives on the findings from our first interest in the buildings themselves. Looking at behaviours allows us to ask questions such as: What is the impact of discussion on children’s innovation in building? Does the amount of copying correlate to different building types? and, What are the effects when children provide instruction to others? Asking these questions allows us a more comprehensive view of children’s collaborative building with blocks.

At the end of each build, we offered the children a sticker as a prize for participating. We give the child the sticker as a gift in return for our use of the data they have provided. It illustrates for the child that they have done us a favour by participating.

Of course the adult’s version of this symbol is the consent form. While issues of data privacy, security, and misuse are today widespread, we found most adults to be relaxed about their children’s participation. But some were anxious about the dangers of social media, some didn’t want their children filmed, others didn’t want to give family names or dates of birth. Collection of information from people can certainly be used for exploitative ends. Indeed the use of information derived from people without their consent can be considered a form of exploitation. In practicing ‘participatory’ action research, however, we try to generate new understandings in ways that we can all benefit.

We will therefore use our results to help the design of future exhibits at the Centre for Life. By doing data collection and research ‘in’ rather than ‘on’ the Centre for Life we hope not only that we can take part in the collective expansion of knowledge, but feed that knowledge back into the context from which we drew it to better understand and thereby improve that context for its visitors. This is our practical science.

Chair of Wellcome Trust visits exhibit pod

Baroness Manningham-Buller chats with the research team by the exhibit.


The Chair of the Wellcome Trust, Baroness Manningham-Buller visited the interactive research pod, and spoke to the Design for Creativity and Innovation in Informal Science Learning team of academic researchers and science centre practitioners. The team explained to the Baroness about the live science experiments we are undertaking with it, and the research outcomes we might see. The Baroness officially opened the Brain Zone gallery at the Centre for Life, where the interactive research pod is hosted amongst other exhibits that engage people with exploring how our brains work.

The Brain Zone has had input from practitioners and designers, and also from from a wide-range of scientists and researchers, from neuroscientists to psychologists. However, our multidisciplinary team of academics from Durham University broadened out the disciplines represented to include anthropology, digital humanities, and computer scientists! Continue reading “Chair of Wellcome Trust visits exhibit pod”

Piloting the pod

exhibit pod
The exhibit pod, with built-in video recording equipment and consent granting via touchscreen tablets.

Following nine months of iterative design and development by the research team, the interactive research pod has been piloted live over October half term in 2015 and during February 2016 half-term holiday. Some of you may have helped us experiment with it – thank you! We gave you the challenge of building the best building you could with simple wooden blocks. We were able to record the construction process and the finished results through a set-up of digital surveillance cameras built into the exhibit.

We gained permission to use the images of people building constructions through online consent forms on touchscreen tablets. If consent was given, the tablet screen exhibited green. Continue reading “Piloting the pod”