The Cell

The Cell

The Cell is a room-sized, immersive installation formerly housed in the University of Colorado Boulder’s ATLAS Institute. My collaborator, Lila Finch, and I were inspired by immersive and embodied science museum installations that encourage experiential learning through play. This installation was an experiment in designing a large sculpture-based user interface that invites people to interact with it in novel, but natural, ways.

Problem:

Formal science education can be boring and dry. Research has shown that a lack of enthusiasm regarding school subjects leads to less retention of the information.

Many science museums are moving towards more interactive and embodied ways of engaging visitors with scientific concepts. However, many times these exhibits rely on screens and touch-based interactions that do not mimic actual underlying scientific processes.

Our goal:

Design a room-sized installation of an E.Coli cell that is aesthetically inviting and empowers people to touch and play with the exhibit in a way that is an authentic metaphor to cellular processes of DNA and RNA replication.

The Cell's DNA strands.
Research Gathering:
Interviewing Mollecular Biologists from the University of Colorado

We interviewed two mollecular biologists from the University of Colorado Boulder to discuss what underlying processes occur within an E.Coli cell. Throughout our interviews we identified that "unzipping" was an authentic metaphor to describe the first phase of DNA replication.

DNA unzipping diagram.
A representation of DNA unzipping during replication.
Alternative Designs and Prototyping

We designed the appearance and structure of the DNA strands through a series of sketches, prototypes, and investigations of the materials. We laser cut wood and foam, and vinyl cut acrylic to form the layers of the nucleotide pieces. We assembled the nucleotides layer by layer, inserting LEDs, fiber optics, magnetics, copper tape, and wiring in the inside. We constructed a wooden frame within the room to attach the DNA strands to. I was responsible for developing the software that detected signals indicating whether the strands were "zipped" or "unzipped" and would subsequently change the color of the LEDs to reveal the base pairs of the strand.

Revision and Construction

When you enter The Cell, you can touch, play, and interact with the different elements of an E.Coli Cell. Currently the cell contains three large strands of interactive DNA that you can “unzip” by separating nucleotide pairs. The nucleotide pairs are held together by magnets, and the installation can detect when the magnets are connected or separated. As you separate the nucleotide pairs, the bases of the pair – A, G, C, and T – are revealed and denoted by color of the LEDs.

Evaluation and Future Improvements

We installed a camera in The Cell that would alert us when people enter and start interacting with the sculptures. We also tested people's interactions with The Cell on the night of the 2018 ATLAS Institute Expo. We learned that using softly diffused LEDs in the nucleotide pairs invited visitors to take a closer look at the strand, and that using soft, squishy, and flexible materials made them feel comfortable pulling at the pieces so that they weren't afraid to break it.

This project has implications for future designs of exhibits and learning experiences in science museums. Experiential learning invites people to learn through touch and play, which is more engaging than more formal and traditional methods.

Eventually, you will be able to pick up pieces of RNA off the floor and attach it to the strands of DNA to create different RNA sequences. You will then be able to use these to activate proteins and then place the proteins in the cell’s receptors to change the behavior and appearance of the cell.