Exhibit Design

Teaching The Next Generation About Climate Change Through An Interactive Experience

The Challenge

The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. Although details about this epoch is still under debate, the academic world has reached consensus on the fact that human activity is significantly changing the Earth.

To start a conversation about Anthropocene there are many topics to talk about, for example: extinction, climate change, plastics… For the purpose of this project, we were tasked to start a conversation with visitors about Anthropocene through the lens of altered landscape.


Xi Jin
Judith Leng

My Role

Interaction Design
Tech Lead


Feb. - Apr. 2019

Solution Highlights

According to our research one of the manifestations of altered landscape in Pittsburgh is the Abandoned Mine Drainage (AMD) problem, a legacy problem of the mining industry Pittsburgh used to pride itself for. To tell a self-contained story around Pittsburgh’s AMD problem, we designed three parts to this interactive exhibit: the formation, impact and treatment of AMD.

01 The Formation of AMD

Illustration panels explaining the phases of how AMD comes into being

02 The Impact of AMD

The impact of AMD is when the drainage goes into the local water system it breaks the pH balance of the water system, affecting the plants and animals relying on the water source.

To illustrate this impact we use a mechanical balance. The mechanical balance is connected to a computer via an Arduino Uno -- depending on the tilt of the balance, the picture shown the computer would change between a healthy nature and an unbalancd unhealthy nature enivornment.

03 The Treatment of AMD

Different agents and methods are used to treat AMD to show this variety we made the third part of our exhibit interactive too. So that visitors can read and learn about the agents that they are interested in.

We made wooden blocks with clay representations of water treatment agents (e.g. limestone and compost) and attached RFID tags ; when the blocks are scanned on the RFID reader the computer screen displays information on how the specific agent is used to treat water.



Anthropocene is a huge topic, even after we’ve narrowed down our scope to altered landscape, there were still so many stories we can go after. So for generative research, we read news articles, academic papers to find a narrative that is the most relavent to our Pittsburgh audience. We made mood boards to collect the information we found.

For many people a museum visit is a very visual experience. They’ll walk around, see an artifact that catches their eye and approach to learn more about it. So in our research we also looked at art and photography exhibitions for inspiration.

For this project, we were introduced to The Principles of Climate Change Learning a learning science theory by the Climate & Urban System Partnership. The theory states that for effective learning about climate change issues in an informal learning setting there are three key aspects to consider: participation, framing for relevance and local system understanding. Meaning that the topic should be relevant to people in Pittsburgh, they should be able to participate in an activity that we design and learn about actionable things they can do to prevent climate change starting in their own community.

Research mood board
The CUSP model

So to understand what framing would be the most relevant to museum visitors in Pittsburgh, we ran a Personal Meaning Map (PMM) Study at the museum. To see what people associate with the term “altered landscape”.

After analysing the we got from our interviewees, we came to the following learnings:

Insight 1

Visitors are not aware of the impact of Altered Landscape

Insight 2

Pittsburgh’s rich industrial history is a rich topic we should explore

Visitors were either not sure what “Altered Landscape” means or can not explain how human activity affects nature

The visitors we interviewed who were from Pittsburgh all mentioned Pittsburgh’s coal mining history in their Meaning Maps

Through research we found an interesting topic: Abandoned Mine Drainage (AMD). AMD in Pittsburgh is a legacy problem from mining companies, who are now long gone, while AMD still seeps through the abandoned mine soil, contaminating water and soil. People in urban areas might not see the effects of AMD in their daily life due to their distance from the sites, despite it being the largest water problem in Pennsylvania.

To understand the AMD problem in Pittsburgh we did more desk research: read news articles and academic papers about AMD, looked into Abandoned Mine restorations projects and interviewed subject experts.

We interviewed Emilie Rzotkiewicz, VP of Land Stewardship at Allegheny Land Trust, and Dave Dzombak, Department Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. They shared their expertise in AMD remediation efforts in Pennsylvania with us and helped us put our previous research into context.

At this point we knew the following things and it is time to start designing:


AMD is the biggest water problem in PA


Companies that created this problem are long gone


It can take scientists and engineers years to design and implement a treatment site

Prototype I: Facilitated Exhibit


We developed a facilitated conversation kit. Through this kit we wanted to explain the process of treating AMD through an experiment demonstration and then provide local context by showing visitors some successful treatment project around Pittsburgh. The following are the materials used:

Anatomy of the first prototype

This kit is designed for a facilitated activity that we has 3 parts:

User Testing and Evaluation

We tested our kit at the Carnegie Natural History Museum with 9 groups of visitors, 17 individuals. We recorded and transcribed all our testing sessions and coded the conversations for analysis.

Above you can see our conversation code data and portion of our code book, explaining how we code the conversations.
We encourage all conversations between visitors, but some conversation signifies a higher level of learning than others. For example in our code book we would consider “connect to real life”, “Ask about how it works” and “Evaluate Impact” and “Future Plans” as higher level of learning. Because these conversations indicate that the visitor is following our activity. Whereas codes such as “Repeat the facilitator”, “Explain” and “Guide” are considered lower level of learning. Because it indicates that visitors have a hard time following and needs more explanation.
We thought about why visitors were having these conversations and how can we improve our design to inspire more conversations.

Insight 1

It’s challenging to retain visitor’s interests on topics beyond their knowledge capacity

When we were talking to visitors under the age of 5, it was obvious they had a hard time understanding what we are saying

Insight 2

In-group social context impacts form and effectiveness of learning

In family groups there were more explanations and in groups of friends there were more discussion about details

Insight 3

How visitors approach new information is influenced by their prior knowledge

Younger visitors have more difficulty understanding our model than adult visitors

Through user testing we also came some other design implications:


Providing more visual aid


Scalability and reusability of the kit


Making the kit more interactive

Prototype II: Non-facilitated Exhibit


So from the learnings from our first prototype, in our second prototype we wanted to answer the question: How might we design a learning experience that is effective for visitors of different age groups?

Looking at this question and thinking about the design implications we got from the last round of user testing, we decided to design an unfacilitated exhibit that visitors can interact with and learn at their own pace.

To help visitors understand Pittsburgh’s AMD problem our exhibit has three parts: the formation of AMD, the impact of AMD and the treatment of AMD.

A sketch for the second prototype

Why Interactive?

When we were testing our first prototype we realized that as facilitators we were talking to the visitors a lot, instead of giving the visitors the opportunity to talk amongst themselves and learn together.

However Abandoned Mine Drainage is a big and complicated problem. If we show all the information to our visitors at the same time they will be overwhelmed with information so we decided to make the 2nd and 3rd part of the exhibit interactive. As the visitors interact with the exhibit, the information will be progressively disclosed to them. We also hope that adding interactive elements would make the exhibit more engaging for young children and encourage family learning.

Designing the Interactions

To achieve the interactions we used 2 Arduino Unos that were linked to laptops running Processing.

One was linked to a weight scale that we laser cut and the balance of the scale will change the graphics on the screen, indicating that the balance in nature has been disrupted.

For the other interaction, we had RFID tags attached onto wooden blocks that represent different materials used to treat AMD. When the visitor puts the block on the RFID reader, then information explaining the science behind the different AMD treatment.

Testing the physical computing component

Solution & Evaluation

Anatomy of the second prototype

Design Considerations

Using customized illustrations

We created a set of illustrations with a pastel palette, primarily to add a level of abstraction to our topic. Per our previous research, AMD is very visual issue and could be scary at a glance (the water is often dangerously orange). We would like to keep our narrative neutral and prevent assigning values that bias our visitors.

The illustration panels

Adding interactivity

Per CUSP Theory, we implemented the interactive elements to encourage hands-on participation and experiential learning. Through mediating the interaction between visitors and the exhibit, we hoped to create an immersive environment for learning.

Colleagues interacting with our design in the office

Writing signages pointing across sections

For our stand-alone exhibit to be self-contained, we figured it needed to have some way-finding mechanism to substitute our facilitation. On the signage for each section, there is a short paragraph about what it is, along with a few sentences reminding visitors about the other components. We created those interconnected signages to account for the multiple entry points to the exhibit, so that visitors get to explore the whole experience no matter where they start.

Abstracting factual knowledge

One of our goals for the exhibit was to attract a wider group of visitors - from our last prototype, we found it challenging to communicate the science about pH levels to young children due to limitations in their prior knowledge. In this iteration, we introduced a physical balance as a metaphor for the general balance in nature.

Girl interacting with the balance at the museum

User Testing and Evaluation

We ran an exhibit evaluation session at the Discovery Basecamp area of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History on Apr. 27th 2019. We tested the exhibit with 12 groups of visitors, 10 groups of families with young children, 2 groups of just 1 adult.

To evaluate this exhibit, we use the Visitor Evaluation Framework by Barriault, C., & Pearson, D. (2010). Assessing exhibits for learning in science centers: A practical tool the document.Visitor Studies, 13(1), 90-106.

According to tracking data, 10 out of 12 groups of visitor expressed transition behaviors, as they expressed joy when they made the balance reach equilibrium. 8 out of 12 groups had breakthrough behaviors,  such as referring to past experiences engaging with the exhibit longer or pointing at things on the screen.

Through observation and analysis, we uncovered a couple of findings:

Our balance was appealing to visitors, but was perhaps too attractive. Almost all the initiation behaviors were triggered by visitors playing with the balance. However, we had a good number of young visitors and the balance seemed to be overly appealing: children were so focused on interacting with the balance that its connection to the computer graphics and further the larger concept of balance in nature did not come across.

The attempt of reaching a wider audience did not quite work. We introduced the physical balance to make the scientific concept more accessible for young audience. Nevertheless, children seemed to not be making the connection, and the physical balance did not engage the parents (who are usually the Facilitators) very well, possibly due to their impression of it as more of a “toy”.

Adults and children had different entry points to the exhibit: after seating themselves on the stolls, adults usually directed their attention to what’s immediately in front of them (the illustration) and started reading, while the kids were almost always attracted by the balance.

Breakthrough/Initiation ratio is relatively high. To us, the result was both encouraging and a little suspicious. A few breakthrough behaviors came from “repeating the activity for 15+ times” in our code book, and upon reflection we think it was an oversimplified representation of learning behaviors. For examples, many children played with the balance itself multiple times without realizing its connection to “balance in nature” - this should have not been counted as one of the breakthrough behaviors.


What I’ve learned…

Provide more opportunities for learning conversations. A main setback we experienced was that visitors seemed to be too invested in the balance and were not having conversations around the exhibit. A few suggestions we received in the review session include

Put up questions that invite reactions (e.g. “Which treatment strategy are you curious to learn more about?”)

Have information points for parents to start conversations with their children because they “ love for the museum to give them the authority in knowledge transferral.”

It’s important to consider how our exhibit will fit into and interact with the existing context. As mentioned in an earlier section, we had to move to different locations a little bit. Had we thought about the possible constraints (such as distribution of power outlets), we would have put more thoughts into designing around them. When designing any addition to a set of exhibit, we should also consider the existing context so that what we design can be integrated into the system as opposed to feel like an isolated object.

Design our exhibit to be more inviting. During our observation studies, we noticed some visitors came over to the exhibit and interacted with it very briefly, but they appeared to be confused about how things worked. We would like to design to help visitors get over the dramaturgical fear - even without our presence as researchers/observers, some visitors might still feel embarrassed when they struggle to figure out the exhibit because of the perceived public scrutiny. To help alleviate the fear, some strategies we thought of include a) unpack the jargons and scientific terms and b) have more explicit instructions.