A balancing act: Designing an exhibit for embodied learning

3 May 2019
Image of scales

What makes a good interactive science exhibit? Is it the warm feeling of successfully completing a task? The chance for children and adults to enjoy science together? The integration of physical and digital components? The achievement in having learnt a science concept that is new to the user? Finding ways to explain your learning to peers and family after your experience?

As part of the Wellcome Trust Institutional Partnership Translational Award project, researchers from the Centre for Research in Digital Education and staff at Glasgow Science Centre (GSC) are working to co-develop an interactive exhibit for 3-6 year olds that promotes embodied learning with the aim of encouraging and enabling children to use gestures to explain their scientific thinking.

Our exhibit is about balance, a concept that is easily relatable to young children (think see-saws, riding a bike, a tightrope walker). Findings from Move2Learn pilot studies have shown that many children gesture about balance after interacting with an existing balance board exhibit at GSC, and previous studies have shown that embodied learning can improve children’s learning and understanding of balance (Pine et al., 2004).

Balance exhibit
Explaining gesture

Children interacting with a balance exhibit at Glasgow Science Centre (left) and using gesture to explain balance (right)

We wanted to produce an exhibit that allowed children to make clear connections between embodied interactions (gestures) and physical objects to support learning. In most cases the gesture given to explain balance replicates the sign language for the word ‘balance’ which is reflected in the design of a balance beam centred on a pivot – or fulcrum – upon which the user can place weights at predetermined increments in order to make the beam ‘balance’ with an even distribution of weight.

Balance beam sketches

Image: Graham Rose, Creative Director at Glasgow Science Centre. Four iterations of exhibit prototypes to encourage embodied learning. The GSC team is currently working on developing prototypes for stages 2 and 3.

The team from UoE and GSC investigating and testing preexisting balance toys, because meetings with toys are the best meetings.

Designing embodied learning experiences

The experienced in-house exhibit design team at GSC are working with external consultants to develop a mechanical prototype for the exhibit. The entire process is being documented with the eventual aim of producing a set of exhibit design guidelines that can be used by designers, practitioners and researchers as a model of best practice for designing embodied learning experiences in science centres and museums, building on previous studies (Clifton et al., 2016; DeSutter ans Stieff, 2017). 

So far, the following conditions have emerged:

  • The exhibit will primarily be or appear to be mechanical (like a see-saw) to encourage embodiment and the use of gesture.
  • The exhibit will be physically accessible for under 7s in terms of height and useability.
  • Technology (e.g. motion and tilt sensors, animations and on-screen games) will be integrated in order to scaffold learning activities to assist with research activities.
  • The exhibit will be inviting, attractive and fun.

Over the next two months the team will be working to better capture how embodied learning theory and exhibit design requirements have influenced the project, and will work with external and internal colleagues to design exhibit prototypes.

- Jamie Menzies, Research Assistant, Move2Learn Wellcome Trust Institutional Partnership Translational Award project