Around the Pier: Birch Aquarium, UC San Diego Schools Fuse Design and Science Data in Innovative New Courses


Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography may soon receive some new aquatic species. But these animals won’t be part of the exhibits—they will be the hosts.        

A group of University of California San Diego engineering students, under the guidance of Dale Stokes, a researcher in the Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps Oceanography, has created a prototype for a whole new way for visitors to interact with exhibits.

In the experience the students designed, each aquarium guest will receive an RFID tag in their ticket (the same kind of communication used for keycards one “taps” to unlock a door) that he or she will scan in a kiosk at the entrance. This tag is associated with an animal “avatar,” like a seahorse or an octopus that will ask for the visitor’s age and preferred language. Once the visitor inputs this data, the avatar will follow him or her around the aquarium: Every time the visitor approaches an exhibit, he or she can scan the RFID tag and the avatar will pop up on a monitor screen adjacent to a tank or museum display, and explain what they’re seeing, in a language and level of difficulty personalized to them.  

“Information will be customized to how visitors want to experience the aquarium and will, ultimately, allow visitors to opportunity to explore from different perspectives, such as from the point of view of a poet, Native American, or young child,” Birch Aquarium Executive Director Harry Helling said.

The engineering students in Stokes’ class were building off of a design created by students last year as part of a course taught by UC San Diego visual arts professor Brett Stalbaum called CAT 124, offered by Sixth College. The course is a practicum in which students get real-life experience working on practical, interdisciplinary projects.

Stalbaum’s CAT 124 course and Stokes’ complementary engineering course represent a new partnership among UC San Diego undergraduate colleges, Birch Aquarium, and Scripps. The concept grew out of conversations between Stokes, whose interest in the visual side of oceanography has seen him help film IMAX nature films and television productions, Helling, and other aquarium officials early in 2016.  From there, they presented the idea to Sixth College as a potential practicum and recruited Stalbaum.

Helling says these two courses are just a few of several new aquarium initiatives “all about turning the aquarium into a ‘laboratory for learning’ for undergraduate and graduate students.”

“What’s interesting here is the scope of what’s going on,” Stokes said, because so many departments on upper campus, the aquarium, and Scripps are getting involved. He said both the Sixth College course and the engineering course are helping to foster tighter connections among UC San Diego’s graduate and undergraduate education at Scripps and other campus departments.

Stalbaum’s class is offered every quarter. The most recent group of students, who came from a wide variety of majors including literature and visual arts, created a new data-visualization tool for the aquarium to better communicate scientific data with its visitors.

The team created a multi-screen “visualization cluster,” powered by 16 inexpensive, easily programmable computers that could be manipulated to show one dataset across monitors, multiple measurements at once, or a combination of texts and visuals. And the visuals themselves, created using oceanographic data collected by Stokes’ research group, stunned Helling.

“They took these really complicated datasets – something as simple as taking soundings and going over underwater knolls – and presented them on this big screen, in HD and with new visualization tools, and turned them into a form of art,” said Helling.

The students presented their final product to aquarium staff at the end of last quarter.

What made the project even more impressive is that many of the undergraduate students didn’t have any programming experience before starting this project. Lamont Pultz, a fourth-year literature student who participated in the class, said he grew up going to Birch Aquarium a lot as a kid, so working with its staff was especially exciting.

“It was cool to go up to a meeting room, to see ideas, and hear the director talking about the aquarium’s future goals,” he said. “It was very engaging, and nice to be in a professional environment.”

“It’s one of the happiest things I’ve ever been involved in as a professor, to see all of these departments get behind these students,” Stalbaum said. “All these places came together to facilitate a really unique experience for these students coming from all different kinds of backgrounds.”

Stokes says many of the engineering students he worked with have become interested in the field of educational outreach and exhibit design.

“I think they're seeing these fields as a whole avenue of pursuit that they never thought of before,” he said. They’re also becoming more interested in and connected to the research being done at Scripps.

In his research, he and his group have to design and create most of their own instrumentation. The skills and knowledge he uses to create marine scientific instruments are similar to what the students need to learn to create new exhibits.

“Even though we're not specifically doing oceanographic instrument design, they're the same techniques that you use for building something like the RFID tag exhibit,” said Stokes.

“Having this young, unique approach to problems, this injection of bright ideas, is very invigorating for everyone involved,” he said.

Helling agrees.

“We are so very fortunate to have the creativity, enthusiasm, and skills from our students that we now use to drive innovation in science communication at the Birch Aquarium,” he said.  


  • Mallory Pickett



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