As the lab considers how to encourage STEM reflection around the tsunami tank, this recent post from Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 reminds us what a difference the choice of a single word can make in visitor reflection:

“While the lists look the same on the surface (and bear in mind that the one on the left has been on display for 3 weeks longer than the one on the right), the content is subtly different. Both these lists are interesting, but the “we” list invites spectators into the experience a bit more than the “I” list.”

So as we go forward, the choice not only of the physical booth set up (i.e. allowing privacy or open to spectators), but also the specific wording can influence how our visitors choose to focus or not on the task we’re trying to investigate, and how broad or specific/personal their reflections might be. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do some testing of several supposedly equivalent prompts as Simon suggests in an earlier post as well as more “traditional” iterative prototyping.

Do visitors use STEM reasoning when describing their work in a build-and-test exhibit? This is one of the first research questions we’re investigating as part of the Cyberlab grant, besides whether or not we can make this technology integration work. As with many other parts of this grant, we’re designing the exhibit around the ability to ask and answer this question, so Laura and I are working on designing a video reflection booth for visitors to tell us about what happened to the structures they build and knock down in the tsunami tank. Using footage from the overhead camera, visitors will be able to review what happens, and hopefully tell us about why they created what they did, whether or not they expected it to survive or fail, and how the actual result fit or didn’t match what they hoped for.

We have a couple of video review and share your thoughts examples we drew from; The Utah Museum of Natural History has an earthquake shake table where you build and test a structure and then can review footage of it going through the simulated quake. The California Science Center’s traveling exhibit Goosebumps: the Science of Fear also allows visitors to view video of expressions of fear from themselves and other visitors filmed while they are “falling”. However, we want to take these a step farther and add the visitor reflection piece, and then allow visitors to choose to share their reflections with other visitors as well.

As often happens, we find ourselves with a lot of creative ways to implement this, and ideas for layer upon layer of interactivity that may ultimately complicate things, so we have to rein our ideas in a bit to start with a (relatively) simple interaction to see if the opportunity to reflect is fundamentally appealing to visitors. Especially when one of our options is around $12K – no need to go spending money without some basic questions answered. Will visitors be too shy to record anything, too unclear about the instructions to record anything meaningful, or just interested in mooning/flipping off/making silly faces at the camera? Will they be too protective of their thoughts to share them with researchers? Will they remain at the build-and-test part forever and be uninterested in even viewing the replay of what happened to their structures? Avoiding getting ahead of ourselves and designing something fancy before we’ve answered these basic questions is what makes prototyping so valuable. So our original design will need some testing with probably a simple camera setup and some mockups of how the program will work for visitors to give us feedback before we go any farther with the guts of the software design. And then eventually, we might have an exhibit that allows us to investigate our ultimate research question.

This follows Nick’s post on “preparing for a different type of Tsunami”, when he discussed initial challenges of the tsunami tank exhibit, especially in terms of the Lego activity and resources used.  Nick pointed out some mechanical/ physical challenges already encountered during initial prototyping but nevertheless said he was confident that the exhibit will be fun, interesting, and popular among Hatfield visitors.

POPULAR without a doubt! I have done some observations and brought in some groups to test the Lego activity at the tank and already can tell you Nick, the tsunami tank will most certainly be very popular. As a consequence, challenges to the exhibit are not only related to the resources used in the activity as you pointed out and whether it works or not, but also brings up issues of crowd management, flow and accessibility to the tank area and interactions among visitors.


In sum, here are some main points that surfaced from my short prototype:

a) The Lego activity and concept for the tank seem to generally work, apart from a few glitches already being addressed such as computer malfunctions and the sanding of Lego blocks so that they don’t stick so strongly together causing poorly constructed structures to stay firm after a potentially strong tsunami wave.

b) There is a need for establishing some rules for building structures so that participants won’t just build a solid square block that will stand still no matter what. The rules during the prototype were that each participant gets a cup full of Legos and have to build a structure of whatever shape but that will not surpass eight blocks tall to survive a tsunami wave. However, a few malfunctions were observed. As an example, the cup idea did not work well as most groups will go to the activity table and search for parts they want to use that were not in their cups.

c) Groups, especially children will spend a long…long time at the tank, which is good and challenging at the same time since crowds accumulate around and things can get really chaotic pretty fast. Creating clearly defined stations for building structures, providing a set of steps to be followed (through a facilitator or signage) and reinforcing time management can address the issue. Although I am afraid there isn’t really a definite solution for that, and at some degree we will have to rely on the visitors themselves (especially parents) to make good judgments and facilitate the process.

d) Visitors have LOTS OF FUN, interact and participate in shared learning.  After all, isn’t that the important aspects to cultivate if we are trying to facilitate learning?

Other subsequent observations were also made when the tank was opened to the public for a day with no facilitator and all my initial speculations were confirmed that crowd management will pose a huge issue, and while some creative solutions are on the making, the exhibit will need constant prototyping through time and even after it is completely opened to the public in order to minimize the problem.  Should I even call it a problem in the very sense of the word? Maybe I should say it is a good problem to have.

The exhibit has all the potential to foster active prolonged engagement (APE) and promote meaningful interactions. Humphrey and Gutwill (2005) importantly point out that APE exhibits are empowering to visitors as they can take pleasure in “observing, playing, investigating, exploring, collaborating, searching and speculating”. That is what I just saw groups starting to do at the tsunami tank.

(Humphrey, T., Gutwill, J. P., & Exploratorium (Organization). (2005). Fostering active prolonged engagement: The art of creating APE exhibits. San Francisco: Exploratorium).




Another of our interns, (actually, they are all Oregon Sea Grant Summer Scholars), Nick, lets us know what it’s like trying to prepare for the “visitor tsunami” that’s bound to occur when we get our third wave tank all set, based somewhat on the inundation he gets as an on-floor interpreter:

“Working as a docent for the front desk and touch pools has provided abundant opportunity to interact with the public and I seem to learn as much information as I provide. Visitors ask so many interesting questions and also ask about local marine events: how is the Sea Turtle doing that washed up on the shore, inquiries about the tsunami debris and recently the Brown Pelican crisis at the Yaquina Head seabird colony. Visitors also bring in some unusual items and ask for help identifying them; one man brought in an orca tooth that he had discovered eroding out of a cliff.

Among my favorite duties is acting as the guide for the daily tour of the Yaquina Bay estuary describing the marine plants and animals of the bay. Participants especially like discovering the tiny crabs that are often living under the very rocks they are standing on. It is pretty rewarding and members of the tour group have often told me that after taking the tour, they now want to become marine biologists.  I have also been helping with the Ocean Quest multimedia presentation in the auditorium. We have been working out the bugs in the presentation and it is finally at a point where we are happy with it.

Our main project involves working on three wave tank exhibits. Brian has been working with the wave energy exhibit, designing an experimental “wave power” device that looks like a futuristic mechanical snake. Diana has been working with the erosion tank and has had to be vigilant in order to prevent the “sandy beach” from becoming a mess from enthusiastic children. My project has been working with our tsunami tank. I have been working on designing ideal tsunami proof structures as well as showing buildings that will not be able to survive the wave. Using Legos as building materials, I have attempted to construct scale models of different building to see if the various designs are demolished or not with the wave tank.

The tsunami project has had some problems associated with it. For starters we have had endless computer glitches and malfunctions that often make it difficult just to run the machine. We have also been experimenting with different lengths of continental slope (represented by an acrylic ramp). Additionally, we found that Legos seem to stick together really, really well….sometimes so well that buildings that should be demolished are still left standing!  We have had to resort to sanding the individual bricks so that they do not stick together as well and will better represent actual building materials. We are hopeful that these problems will be fixed within a few weeks when we plan to open the tank to the public. The educational intent of the display is to challenge visitors to construct a building that can stand up to a tsunami wave. We are confident it has the makings of a fun and interesting exhibit and hope it will be very popular with our visitors!”


The Japanese dock on Agate Beach has been the leading topic of conversation in town since it washed ashore some days ago. Lots of people have gone down to the beach to visit it, and for different reasons. At least one left flowers. Many took note of the exotic creatures that rode the battered hulk across the Pacific. Some tore off pieces as souvenirs (and some of these were caught and turned back by state police).

The potentially invasive species have now been removed from the dock, and a trans-Pacific conversation is underway to determine exactly what to do with it. Should it be taken apart as scrap? Should it be converted into a memorial for those lost to the tsunami that displaced it? Should it be left where the sea saw fit to release it?

That dock carried more than sea stars and barnacles from its home. What meanings did it bring with it, and to whom do they belong?


Today we met with a consulting engineer to puzzle out the basics of our wave tank. We’ll use the wave tank for two main purposes: modeling tsunami damage and demonstrating wave energy buoys. This means we’ll need to create both breaking waves and swells. This may entail two tanks or a convertible system of some sort.

The wave energy element of the exhibit will use working scale-model wave generators with LED lights to show the output. What better way to demonstrate wave energy than to actually let visitors produce it and see the results? We’ll be able to use this setup to host student design challenges, wherein participants engineer and test their generator arrays for power and efficiency.

We expect visitors (and ourselves) to have a lot of fun with the tsunami modeling aspect of the wave tank. This will feature scale-model buildings and a shore on which waves can break. We’re still exploring the design possibilities. This part of the exhibit will also lend itself to design challenges, as visitors and students will create buildings to test their tsunami resistance.

Tsunami modeling has immediate implications for a town like Newport, which sits right next to an offshore fault. Here at HMSC, we’re at sea level. Regular drills and the presence of emergency supply “bug-out bags” on the walls ensure that everyone here has at least an imagined scenario of what he or she would do in case of a quake. Pat Corcoran is our coastal natural hazards extension agent, and he has lots of info on the subject of “The Big One” and how to prepare.

When the earthquake hit Japan earlier this year, folks on the Oregon coast learned how real this scenario could become. For those of us on the Oregon coast, the local evacuations were a wake-up call. In Japan, the nightmare continues. We imagine great disasters befalling “other people,” but actual disasters tend to remind us that there are no “other people”—only some of “us.” Nobody is immune, and nobody is untouched.

With this unsettling fact in mind, why do we so enjoy the concept of using model waves to smash a miniature coastal town not unlike our own? Back in my own home state of Florida, why do visitors enjoy “Disasterville” at MOSI? Why bring to mind the things that frighten us most? We do so for the same reason we watch horror movies, ride roller coasters or listen to Slayer. That is, as long as we have popcorn to eat, a lap bar to hold us in our seats or a buddy to pull us out of the mosh pit, we can look down upon danger and laugh. We banish the ugly and the frightening to the realm of fiction, if only for a moment. If we learn something useful in the process, all the better.