It’s not too long before Christmas (as if any of you needed reminding) and so we have just enough time to test our latest exhibit, Sand, on the floor before the workshop shuts down for the holidays. Although the Centre will still be open of course

Sand, like Disco, is something that stemmed from our experiences with existing exhibits. In particular the sand turntables that we had a chance to play with during our visit to At-Bristol in July 2010.

As with ‘Disco’, kudos must be given to the Exploratorium  for their original concept of the idea. There’s also interesting information in how, through evaluation, they came to the idea of having multiple stations rather than one, in the book Fostering Active Prolonged Engagement

From the very beginning Sand was a strong favourite of ours. I think there is something about the sensation of running sand through your fingers that evokes a strong sense of pleasure, regardless of age. If you then add the visual element of creating patterns you have an exhibit that is both soothing, entertaining and an accessible outlet for creativity.

As with other Exploratorium inspired exhibits the original idea was to buy in the exhibit. However as the project progressed we soon realised that this exhibit was something we could build ourselves, and so have the freedom to see if we could take it a step further.

So the first step wasn’t to begin building the turntable exhibit but instead to take a step back and think about the sand itself. What other interesting things could we do with sand in an exhibit environment? Once we’d excluded anything that involved liquids or large amounts of mess we focused on three concrete ideas; sand turntables, sand drawing stations and a sand pendulum.

We tested all of these ideas in our evaluation session and you can see the beautiful creations from our Curiosity Advisors below

There was little surprise when we discovered that the turntables were a big hit. But we were also pleased to discover that both the sand drawings and sand pendulum were liked by everyone as well.

Unfortunately we only have a certain amount of space per exhibit and it was felt that as good as the pendulum was, it had a different feel to the other options. So the pendulum was set aside for now, hopefully to be taken up again when we have more time.

This left us with the sand turntables and sand drawing stations. For the prototype we had combined them into one exhibit.

Before our prototype session we had considered the fact that combining two separate activities into one area might have presented some problems.

The feedback from our Advisors confirmed this. It was difficult to focus on drawing in the sand when someone was next to you with a spinning turntable.

But we didn’t want to lose either of the two activities. So we came to a clear solution. To split the two activities and give them their own space.

Of the two designs above we settled on the first one as it gives people their own space but doesn’t isolate you completely from the other person using the exhibit.

Going back to the version in At-Bristol for a moment, one of the things we really loved about its setup was their use of lighting. As I discovered while making the video of our evaluation session, it made it very easy to turn a simple shape in the sand into something a lot more complex and beautiful.

So the second important component in both units was the inclusion of suitable light sources. For the sand turntable this meant a spotlight, for the sand drawing table a backlight for the drawing surface.

To make the exhibits as open ended as possible we’re always looking for ways to give our users variables. With the turntables it’s the speed of rotation, for the sand drawing station we decided it would be the colour of the light. And to keep it simple we stuck with the three primaries; red, green and blue. You can then combine these into secondary colours or use all three to create a simple white light background.

So we had the sand, the housing, the lighting and the controls.

There was still one more thing we needed, something to act as a hint of what could be done and add an artistic feel to the exhibit.

These extra additions were vinyl prints of sand drawings and sand shapes that other people had created. It turned out to be the most difficult vinyl printing I’ve had to do so far in this project, mainly due to finding appropriate images that would scale and print well.

In the end we chose four for each unit and covered the larger portholes with them, leaving a smaller central porthole for people to view the exhibit through. The process of doing this was an interesting one and although we’re happy with the results I think in the future we’ll try and create our own prints from designs made on the exhibits themselves.

All of the above results in the finished product you see before you.

Both of the units have been downstairs on the floor since Tuesday morning and so far seem to have had a nice amount of attention, with only one incidence of someone tipping sand on the floor. For those unfortunate times when we’re not around we’ve provided a dustpan and brush for staff to use to help clean up the area. At the end of the week we’ll have an idea of how much debris is likely to be created and start to think of appropriate measures to deal with them in the future.

Our only other problem has been sand working its way into the mechanisms of the buttons and disrupting their functions.

Guessing what will disrupt an exhibit before it’s used can be difficult. Before the start of any exhibit build we go through a document called the ‘Build Guide’ and as a team we do our best to ‘predict the unpredictable’ and prepare the exhibit for every eventuality.

But even with a team of us racking our brains, things sometimes slip through the net. In this case it was our first time working with sand and it may be that we underestimated it’s ability to work its way into the tiniest of places. But it’s from these evaluation findings that we can then learn and produce better exhibits in the future.

If you are at the Centre sometime this week and have a chance to play with Sand please share your thoughts, photos and videos either here, on Twitter (scienceatlife) or Facebook (Science at Life).