The End

When the Curiosity project started we knew that there was funding for a little more than 2 years but there was a hope that more funding could become available to continue building and improving exhibits. It became apparent midway through 2012 that this was not going to happen so we started making preparations for the close down of the workshop and now in November 2012 we have just about cleared out the space.

Enough room to swing a dead cat!

The project has been great fun to be part of and it’s really rewarding to see the public using the interactives that started out as scribbles on a piece of paper – what seems like an age ago.

Now it’s the academics turn! There will be lot’s of interest and evaluation of how people use the interactives and the gallery as a whole in the future i’m sure. People are still divided over the ‘Gallery without labels’ topic and hopefully curiosity, over time, will go some way to silencing the nay sayers.

Not sure if and when there will be another entry but thanks for reading, hope you’ve enjoyed it and if haven’t been down to the Center for Life already please come down.


The Final build: Ramps and Air Power

Despite the fact that the Curiosity Gallery opened all that time ago in May, it has only been in the last few weeks that the final two exhibits have made it onto the floor. Unlike with other exhibits these two will not have time on the Exhibition floor for evaluation and then come back to the workshop to have any adjustments made as we previously could.

The Timer and Jump Ramps in the Curiosity Gallery.

The first to make it across the road was Ramps: two different profiled ramps, a building table and a small mountain of Lego made up this replacement exhibit. After the conclusive results of the Advisor session the two ramps that we carried forward are the timing ramp and the jump ramp, giving people a good contrast to trial their different vehicles.

The ramps needed a bit of changing from the original evaluation design including making the angle of the timing ramp a little less steep so we would get times of over one second and making one big jump instead of a roller coaster effect. We decided to use Lego as our final building material rather than kit cars as it something that people are very familiar with and any easy resource to replace.

Air Power and the building table in the Curiosity Gallery

Then last but definitely not least there is Air Power and so far this has been a roaring success with all ages. At our evaluation we trialled two different versions: the updraft table and ‘air plumbing’ so that we could see which would be the most successful. From a previous post you will know that in the end we decided to build our very own wind/updraft table that would allow users to create and adapt their own floating mechanisms. In the first week since it has been on the floor we have seen a range of varying different mechanisms that allow the builder to see how air reacts with the objects it flows through.

The loose resource issue is of course the main concern now that it is on the floor and we can see how quickly they are used. The other issue that has become apparent is that the air flow of this exhibit is being vastly changed by the very loose resources needed to make it fun. This exhibit is never going to look the neatest but it has definitely become one of our favourites to play on and experiment with!

Air Power: Inspiration and Evaluation

And so we come to our final prototype for the Curiosity Zone, ‘Air Power’

We’ve always seen a lot of mileage in allowing users to manipulate the flow of air as they experimented with loose objects such as balls and scarves.

The classic example in science centres and museums is the ‘Bernoulli Blower’. But there are many other inspirations we’ve drawn upon as well.


Our own feeling was to develop an ‘air plumbing’ exhibit, while also incorporating a Bernoulli Blower element to signal the exhibit was still functioning even if it wasn’t being used.

During our research we also came across an experimentation by the Exploratorium, that removed any barriers such as external plastic tubes. Essentially a ‘wind table’.

It had sat in the back of our minds as a concept that could also work for us, but we wanted to investigate the idea of air through pipework first. However once we had played with our ‘air plumbing’ prototype there was a concern that it wouldn’t hold our advisors attention for long enough. So we decided to quickly mock-up our own version of a wind table on the day and see which prototype faired best.

You can see what our advisors made of the two prototypes below:

What we observed was quite different to what we had expected. Almost immediately the group divided, with boys on the ’air plumbing’ exhibit and the girls (and parents also) constructing around the wind table.

It wasn’t until at least halfway through the session that this began to change and the groups started to mix more.

At the end it was clear that the children had found the air plumbing exhibit more immediately rewarding, perhaps due to the tactile sensation of placing the pipes together and the strong force of the air. But despite this we had observed something that gave us cause for concern.

Our aim for this exhibit has always been to inspire users to think about air flow, including how it can be manipulated as well as its effect on other objects. However we felt with the ‘air plumbing’ exhibit that the focus shifted more onto constructing as high a pipe as possible, or trying to connect them all together. It seemed to become more like a construction exhibit, than one about exploring the properties of air.

Here we had an example of one of the great difficulties as an exhibit builder. Do you stick with a design simply because it’s very popular, despite your worries that it doesn’t represent the concept the way you’d hoped?

Of course we still had our wind table to consider. The major difference we observed between the two prototypes seemed to be the type of activity and level of energy displayed outwardly by its users.

While the pipe area was often quite loud with frenzied shouts of ‘bigger’, ‘that’s my bit’, ‘pass it here’ etc the wind table was an area of relative calm. Users quietly and studiously created their devices and tested them out in the stream of wind, while discussing ideas and offering opinions on other people’s constructions.

Unfortunately in the popularity vote the wind table lost out. But we know there is also a good possibility that the less prominent size and position of the wind table in the evaluation room, may have contributed to its losing that vote. Which is something we can change in its future design.

So which one did we choose to pursue?

In the end we decided that above all it was the sight of users creating, testing and then redesigning their creations that made us think the wind table had more possibilities. The supply of loose parts is something we’ll have to deal with when it comes to the final build within a few weeks, but it’s worth it due to the open-endedness that the wind table demonstrates.

Also as so often happens with our prototype sessions it’s very likely that the ultimate result will be some hybridisation between the two. We don’t want to lose the ability for users to create pockets of air flow with more direct effects, and so we’ve already discussed creating accessories for users to manipulate the flow of air from the wind table surface.

But for now we leave the world of air manipulation to focus on our final build of ‘Ramps’, which you’ll no doubt be hearing more about in a few weeks time.

And we’ll end as we did on Friday, with a huge thank you to all our advisors who have taken the time to help us figure out just what it was about our exhibits that was worth pursuing. They’ve been funny, friendly, full of life and most importantly, honest and constructive with their feedback. But we decided that saying how grateful we were wasn’t quite enough, so we created limited edition goody bags for each family to take home with them. Each containing an assortment of curious goodies.

Followed by the obligatory slightly embarrassing photograph to mark the occasion of course.

Ramps: Inspiration and Evaluation

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, even though The Curiosity Zone is officially open, we still have two more exhibits to build before our work is complete.

Here is the concept sketch for one of those two ideas, ‘Tipping Point’.

However while we all still love the concept, there are a few elements that now make it unsuitable for one of our final exhibits. After the opening when we surveyed the exhibition as a whole we realised that not only did we have a lot of loose parts, but that two of our exhibits ‘Magnet’ and ‘Build’, already focused strongly on the ideas of building and sculpture.

So in an attempt to shift away from the growing mountain of loose parts and create more diversity we went back to our list of reserve ideas and scoured it for anything that may now be suitable.

As a general rule it’s always a good idea to keep a record of any ideas you have, even if at the time they don’t seem quite right. You never know when circumstances might change or a new idea might stem from an old one.

In the end we narrowed it down to two:

1) ‘Light pendulum’; a pendulum with a light source that can be manipulated to create patterns on a light sensitive material. A nice simple concept with few loose parts, but needs exact light levels and may not be open-ended enough.

2) ‘Ramps’; visitors create cars which they can then test on ramps using different variables such as a speed, distance etc Simple concept and good link to scientific testing methodology, but requires many more loose parts then the pendulum.

In the end despite the need for loose items such as Lego, ‘Ramps’ won, due to its clear focus on testing variables and capacity for more open-ended exploration.

The original concept was inspired by something we’d seen at Legoland…

And then combined with other research.

This resulted in four different prototype tracks:

You can see what our advisors created in the video below:

In the classic X-Factor style we asked our advisors to vote for their two favourite ramps from the above. With no votes the ‘distance’ and ‘make your own track’ quickly bit the dust.

It became clear that the ‘distance’ ramp didn’t hold people for as long as the others did and it wasn’t obvious to our advisors what the named zones were for. If we’re honest then this result wasn’t much of a surprise, since we’d felt that it may not attract people as much when in competition with some of the other ramps.

However we were surprised that the ability to ‘make your own track’ wasn’t as popular. In hindsight not colouring the movable sections may have made it more difficult to see the function, and perhaps the resulting ramp simply wasn’t as exciting as the rollercoaster ramp beside it.

Results such as this are why our prototype sessions are so important. It’s vital to get an idea early on of which ideas will capture and hold a visitors attention, before you dedicate too many resources towards them.

Due to the nature of our building schedule, we will now be moving onto our second prototype, before finishing this exhibit a few weeks later.

And it’s strange to write this, but our next exhibit will be the final one for The Curiosity Zone. This also means that within a few weeks we will be holding our very last Advisor Session. It’s been a true pleasure to open our doors to such honest and enthusiastic families and we’ll certainly miss sharing our prototypes with them.

So look out for our post in the near future on our last prototype, and last evaluation session.

But for now I shall leave you with a little teaser of the workshop team testing out part of our last prototype which will be premièring in a few weeks time.

Sharing Curiosity

This week it has been hard to miss the emphasis of Curiosity in the media. Of course we love anything Curiosity related and it doesn’t get much more exciting than the Curiosity rover landing on Mars.

Over the next few years it will be transmitting its discoveries across the great expanse of space back to the NASA headquarters. And the amazing thing is that we can also see those same discoveries just by following the rover on Twitter or accessing the NASA website.

These discoveries may be important data or simply beautiful pictures of Mars like these:

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The sharing of media online is one of the best ways these days to allows lots of people to experience the same important moments.

This showcase of important moments was something we wanted our visitors to be able to do within our Curiosity Zone as well. Our main way of doing this was to advertise a hashtag and Tumblr sharing platform within the exhibition itself.

Now that we’re into the summer holidays it seems like a perfect time to see if any of these endeavours have been tried by our visitors.

It’s pleasing to see that the Twitter stream showcased on our exhibition wall is attracting some interest. Most of our tweets so far have fallen into two general categories of people either testing out the process, or announcing their enjoyment of the exhibition or centre as a whole.

However the Tumblr platform has had less uptake. This could be because of less familiarity or perhaps the lack of immediate reward such as with Twitter, where you can see your tweet on the exhibition wall almost immediately. Or simply a lack of experience from our visitors when it comes to uploading media.

In the original digital strategy design we included provision for a set of tablets that could be used by our Science Explainers to introduce visitors to the use of QR codes. As well as a sharing platform to showcase exhibition links such as video clips, or online games.

What we’ve now discovered is that these tablets have become key as a link between the visitors and our Tumblr website. The majority of the uploads now come from Science Explainers noticing interesting visitor creations or behaviours within the exhibition. Our marble run exhibit in particular has been an excellent showcase for visitor creativity.

For those of us who don’t get to spend as much time on the floor, this has meant the Tumblr page has become a great store of interesting exhibit interactions. We can browse the page occasionally and pick out interesting behaviours without needing to spend the time on the floor that our explainers do. Of course this would never replace full in depth evaluation, but it is still a great source of ongoing information.

We’re also discovering that our Curiosity Cabinet has garnered much more interest now that we’ve incorporated comment cards and pencils.

In contrast our online virtual cabinet, accessed by the accompanying QR codes, has had little use by visitors so far. Again an unfamiliarity with the format, or lack of visible output within the gallery could be responsible for this. Considering we’re only just nearing the end of the third month of opening though, there’s still a lot more observation and evaluation to be done.

For now though we’ll leave you with just a few of the interesting creations our visitors have produced:

And my personal favourite…

What are your thoughts on the use of QR codes and links to online content within exhibitions? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us @curiousatlife

Guest Post: The Digital Curiosity Zone

While the workshop focuses on tidying up some loose ends of Curiosity, I’ve invited some other members of the team to share their experiences of the development process. Today it’s Camille Cocaud, our intern, who has worked hard to create a strong digital presence within the gallery. Unfortunately Camille is now leaving us for greener pastures back in her native France, but you can follow all the exciting things she continues to do via Twitter @camillecocaud

This blog post is a bit different than the ones we’ve posted before. Lizzie’s been telling you everything about the creative process behind building the Curiosity Zone, exhibit after exhibit for the past few months. I’m going to tell you how the Curiosity Zone has gone digital.

QR codes. Not a swear word. Not a new Ridley Scott futuristic movie title. QR codes (Quick Response codes) are two-dimensional square-shaped barcodes, usually using black and white pixels. Like common barcodes, they contain information that can be accessed, but here we’re using a smartphone.

QR Code to Curiosity Landing Page

Ring a bell? Yes, indeed we’ve seen these appearing everywhere recently, mostly on commercial ads and sometimes for cultural initiatives. When you scan them with your phone using a QR reader app, you generally are redirected to a specific webpage via your phone browser. But enough of the boring lesson. Why am I telling you about these again? Well because we’re using QR codes in the Curiosity Zone, as the technological pivot of the exhibition digital extension, QRiosity.

Let’s step back a little and think about what is the general idea behind the Curiosity Zone. This exhibition is quite unusual for our visitors. It doesn’t have labels with detailed instructions or lists of facts to learn about.  The team wanted to encourage the public to ‘exercise their scientific muscles’ by investigating the exhibits as they play. Research scientists don’t know what their final results will be when they do an experiment.  In the same fashion, science is driven by curiosity and an attempt to answer questions that begin with “what happens if…”  Research is only like a more formal sort of play when you think of it. The core idea was to give people a taste for investigation and enough confidence to ask their own questions by providing them with some starting points.

QRiosity has got the exact same objectives, but aims to extend people’s taste for meaningful exploration online. All our exhibits have one associated QR code stuck in its surroundings, awaiting visitors to be QRious enough to scan them.

When you do so, you access the exhibit QRiosity page. All these pages are hosted on our website, and perfectly accessible from a computer or a smartphone. For each page you visit, a selection of ‘the best of the web’ is there for you to discover. Whether it be a funny video to watch, an insightful article to read, trendy apps to download, addictive games to play online, famous geek blogs to follow, interesting websites or DIY scientific demos to try out yourself, QRiosity aims at getting visitors curious beyond the exhibition floor.

Of course, QRiosity is just  starting and for now only the team’s bests are shared on these pages. Internet users and visitors are welcome and even encouraged to  help curate  the web page  of each exhibit. Sometimes the things we share are very loosely related to the exhibit and only touch on a tiny proportion of the general idea behind them.

In addition to QRiosity, we’re also using Tumblr and Twitter to complete our digital Curiosity Zone. Indeed, all of the exhibits in this exhibition space are creativity-prone. Most of them invite visitors to create something,  such as a tune on our ‘Music Box’ or ‘Reactable’, a traced drawing on our ‘Outline’ fossil tables,  or a pattern on our ‘Sand’ stations. Creativity stems from previous encounters and experiences, hence why the Curiosity Zone has a platform,, where visitors can share their creations for others to find about, whether it’s a tune, a photo, a video, a quote or an interesting link. The idea of using Twitter in the Curiosity Zone stemmed from the desire to have a wall where visitors could comment, share, ask questions or give feedback about their experience. People can add  to the ongoing conversation with other visitors and our staff using #curiousatlife, and their tweet is automatically displayed on a tweet wall! Our science explainers and hosts can interact with them through our @curiousatlife account.

Having such a large digital presence  in one of our exhibitions is something totally new here in the Centre for Life. We would very much like to hear  your comments or advice as professionals or as a visitor (or maybe even both!) We hope that our digital Curiosity Zone fits into the overall project and that it brings extra-value to the  fabulous work our workshop team have already done on the exhibits.

Bringing Curiosity to Life

Curiosity as a concept and a project has been at Life for a while now but as a full exhibition it didn’t officially arrive until last Friday, the 25th May.

The installation of The Curiosity Zone took a few weeks and you can see the work that went into it below:

Here is our current roster of exhibits in their finished state, with two more still to be installed, our ‘Magic Wall’ and ‘Tesla Coil’.

The official opening of a new exhibition is a strange affair. It’s almost the same feeling you have as when you’re preparing for Christmas I think. You know that the event is coming, there are weeks (or even months) of preparation beforehand and yet no matter how hard you plan, you know deep down that there will always be things that go wrong. But what’s important is that on the day you have something that, even if it’s not quite perfect, matches people’s expectations of what it should be.

Of course when the day does finally arrive it goes by so fast that before you know it it’s 7.30pm at night, you’re full of food and (hopefully) everyone is congratulating you on their way out saying how wonderful it’s all been and how much they’re looking forward to seeing you again next time.

I’m pleased to say that our opening day followed that same pattern. In fact I don’t think the exhibition could have been received any better. I spent a lot of the day catching up with people who had helped us from the beginning, such as our Curiosity Advisors, or chatting to those who were new to the concept but immediately got what we were trying to do. As always the most reassuring thing of all was seeing the general public take to the exhibits and the environment in the playful way we had always hoped.

During our more official lunch event we were lucky enough to have the presence of an established science communicator and exhibit builder Jem Stansfield as well as our Newcastle MP and Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation Chi Onwurah

You can see what they, and some of our first visitors, thought on the day in the video below:

So what remains now? There are still a few last minute tweaks to the exhibition that we need to finalise. Plus we need to start forming our evaluation strategy for the exhibition over the coming months and make sure that everything can be maintained easily by the on floor staff and technical team in the future. We also have two more exhibits to devise, prototype and build plus one or two side projects for the workshop that I’ll mention at a later date.

But for today I think all that remains is to give a huge, heartfelt thank you to everyone who has helped make this exhibition possible. From those who started dreaming it up years ago, to those who are only encountering the exhibition for the first time today. And also of course, those of you reading this blog right now. Even if you haven’t yet had the chance to enter the exhibition, it’s still worthwhile knowing what we’re doing is having a wider impact than just the immediate vicinity of the Centre for Life.

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