© 2020 Abigail Sarver-Verhey

skip TO...

 

EVOLVED

communication studies and visitor evaluation informed design

I created this exhibition as part of my outreach-focused Undergraduate Honors Thesis in Anthropology. It explores human evolution through the lens of the modern human body, presenting a series of interactives that demonstrate various evolutionary principles and consequences in the familiar context of visitors' own bodies. The exhibition's interpretive approach was based on science communication research and several of the interactives were refined through prototyping with visitors at COSI.

 

The exhibition has become part of The Ohio State University Department of Anthropology's public outreach program where it is being developed into a traveling exhibition for Ohio libraries.

THE EXHIBITION

introduction​

As visitors enter the exhibition they pass a series of panels that visually and didactically explain the basic principles of evolution. This information helps to provide background to the examples provided by the different interactives.

 

being human

The first section of the exhibition explores the basic traits that all humans share and that define us as the species Homo sapiens. They demonstrate the major changes that occurred over the long course of our evolutionary lineage that resulted in us and focus on what unites us as a single species.  

 

In this interactive, visitors learn the value of our opposable thumbs by donning a pair of thumb-less gloves and trying to do basic tasks like picking up a coin, writing their name, and even taking a photo with their phone.The challenge of doing these everyday actions shows how helpful opposable thumbs are for manipulating our surroundings, the reason they were a significant early step in human evolution.

 

The development of cooking had a major impact on our dentition. By pressing "teeth" buttons into unprocessed, processed, and cooked corn, visitors can feel the greater force it took to chew uncooked foods and see how the pressure for robust teeth and jaws decreased with softer foods.

As visitors walk across a projected surface of animal footprints, they see their own human footprints trail behind them. Looking around, they can compare their bipedal footprints to the size, frequency, and patterns of quadrupedal animals to see how feet adapted for walking on two legs are different than those adapted to walking on four.

Stereoscopic vision helped our early arboreal ancestors navigate life in trees, and today it remains important for tasks we do everyday. This interactive helps visitors to understand the difference depth perception makes through matching the ends of two dowel rods. With both eyes open it is simple, but with one eye closed visitors loose their stereoscopic vision and cannot accurately judge the location of the point in space.

Vestigial structures are elements of the body that do not serve any significant purpose, they are simply leftover from our evolutionary ancestors. These different structures are mapped out over a life size silhouette with captions that explain which ancestors they came from.

Humans have evolved mechanisms for maintaining body temperature and function in extreme conditions. Visitors can flip between hot and cold with this wheel and read how the human body has adapted to climates of each extreme.

In the Childbirth interactive, visitors attempt to pass model infant skulls through pelvises of varying widths, from narrow and efficient for walking to wide. The challenge of fitting the skull shows that the size of our pelvis is a tight compromise between bipedal efficiency and the demands of giving birth.

 

Legs illustrates how the angle of our knees has evolved for bipedal efficiency by challenging visitors to walk with a foam cube between their knees, mimicking the awkward, lumbering gait of a quadruped on two legs.

This hexagonal structure hosts a series of interactives in which visitors explore different features and limitations of being bipedal. These different features allow visitors to approach the topic through a lens that is relatable or interesting to them. 

 

In Foramen Magnum (the place where the spine meets the skull), visitors place "spine" rods in the "skulls" of a human, chimp, and a human ancestor to see how their spines align differently depending on their mode of locomotion.

In Arthritis, visitors attempt to lift the weight of the upper body, an extremely challenging task intended to illustrate just how much pressure bipedalism puts on the pelvis over the course of a lifetime - a strain that can lead to conditions like arthritis and general hip pain.

In the Spine activity, visitors must stand with their back to the tower and try to bend over and touch their toes. The challenge of this task demonstrates how the shape of our spine has developed to optimize our center of gravity for being upright.

human variation

The second section examines the factors that create the variation among humans. Looking at evolution on a more local and even personal scale, these traits show how different environmental and genetic factors result in different adaptions and variations that distinguish people from each other.   

 

This digital interactive helps visitors understand how mutations - the source of all genetic variation among humans - arise in DNA. A line of DNA code is set at the beginning of the day and visitors translate successive lines of code. After translating a line, they can compare it to the line before to see how many mutations resulted from their translation and the original line to see how many mutations accumulated over time.

Visitors learn about body size adaptations through a matching game in which they place animals in their native climate and compare their body shapes and features. Visitors then apply these observations to human adaptations that follow similar trajectories. 

In this interactive visitors learn why humans have varying skin colors. They pull lenses of differing opacities in front of a beam of light and see how the opacity, like melanin in the skin, can be used to block out harmful UV rays that come with sunlight.

human brain

The exhibition's third section looks at perhaps the most notable human feature, our brains, and how they affect our abilities as organisms. The traits/behaviors explored in this group illustrate some of the major milestones in the evolution of the human brain and show how both environment and culture have shaped the course of human evolution.

 

The human brain is far larger than any other animal - but not in its typical shape. The folds in our brain allow it to be small but dense. In this interactive, visitors stretch out Hoberman sphere models of brains to compare their folded and unfolded surface area, finding that the human brain has the largest surface area of them all.

This two-person interactive illustrates just how important complex language has been for human communication and evolutionary success. One visitor selects a pattern and then must communicate to their partner how to build that pattern without the use of words. The challenge of this task shows how difficult it is to communicate about complex tasks without words and might demonstrate some of the ways human ancestors likely communicated such as gesture and tonal sounds.

The ability to make and use tools has been a major evolutionary advantage for humans. This series of interactives looks at how humans have invented increasingly complex tools over time and demonstrates how helpful tools are through a comparison of different tasks with and without tools. 

 

The first tool is simple - a stick. Chimpanzees use tools as basic as this to pull termites out of mounds. Visitors can see the benefits of this tool by using a magnetic "stick" to catch termites in a mound.

The invention of the wheel was a major milestone, and visitors quickly see how helpful it could be by pushing a heavy box with and without the aid of wheels.

Todays "tools" don't always look like something we might think of as a tool. But we use computers, like the calculator in this comparison, to help us run complex networks and understand our world. 

A moving projection of cave art hung from the ceiling spans the exhibition space, creating a tableau of some of humanity's earliest art. Visitors can view the display from a central bench, where labels explain the significant of art in human brain evolution as well as prompt the consideration of why we create and appreciate art.

conclusion

Evolution is an ongoing process. On the conclusion panel, visitors can learn about evolutionary factors at work today and they ways in which they are currently shaping our species.

 

explore the project more...

exhibition development

big idea

The process of evolution shapes how the human body looks and works.

 

concept

  • Research Theory 1: Exhibits that make topics personally relevant will promote visitor engagement and learning.

    • Reframe evolution as a contemporary and personally relevant force

  • Research Theory 2: Exhibits that involve interactive experiences will promote learning through personal investigation

    • Create interactive experiences that demonstrate elements of evolution

audience

  • 11-13 years old/middle school

 

goals (visitors will...)

  • Understand that evolution is a biological process that has and continues to shape humans

  • Recognize changes that have occurred through evolution

  • Recognize the forces that act(ed) to create these changes

  • Feel more familiar and comfortable with the idea of evolution

floor plan

 
 
LABEL WRITING
 
prototyping

Three of the interactives from the exhibition were evaluated with visitors. Evaluations were conducted at COSI, as a science center audience was ideal for the content, interactive nature of the experiences, and target audience of 11-13 year olds.

Overall, the results of the evaluation showed that the experiences were logistically effective and provided suggestions for refining the messaging in the individual interactives.

childbirth 

In the Childbirth interactive, visitors attempt to pass model infant skulls through pelvises of varying widths, from narrow and efficient for walking to wide. The challenge of fitting the skull shows that the size of our pelvis is a tight compromise between bipedal efficiency and the demands of giving birth.

 

Evaluation findings:

  • Female participants with children showed the highest level of engagement. This indicated the success of presenting bipedalism through multiple contexts that different visitors could relate to personally. 

  • A small number of participants were uncomfortable with the birthing aspect of the experience, which may be mitigated in the actual exhibition by the alternative bipedalism interactives.

skin color 

In this interactive visitors learn why humans have varying skin colors. They pull lenses of differing opacities in front of a beam of light and see how the opacity, like melanin in the skin, can be used to block out harmful UV rays that come with sunlight.

 

Evaluation findings: 

  • In the majority of trials participants were able to accurately identify the purpose of melanin/the reason skin colors are different after using the interactive, indicating that it was successful in its educational aim.

  • Several visitors were interested in exploring their own ancestry with the skin color map, suggesting that this may be a good way to further establish a personal connection with the content.

tool use 

The ability to make and use tools has been a major evolutionary advantage for humans. This series of interactives looks at how humans have invented increasingly complex tools over time and demonstrates how helpful tools are through a comparison of different tasks with and without tools. 

 

The first tool is simple - a stick. Chimpanzees use tools as basic as this to pull termites out of mounds. Visitors can see the benefits of this tool by using a magnetic "stick" to catch termites in a mound.

The invention of the wheel was a major milestone, and visitors quickly see how helpful it could be by pushing a heavy box with and without the aid of wheels.

Todays "tools" don't always look like something we might think of as a tool. But we use computers, like the calculator in this comparison, to help us run complex networks and understand our world. 

Evaluation findings:

  • The termite mound was the most popular activity.

  • Several participants were heavily engaged in the calculator activity, transforming it into a competition between the calculator and the brain/chalkboard. This suggests that a competition factor may make the tool interactives even more engaging.

  • In about half of the trials participants were able to correctly identify the objects as tools, though many others mentioned similar concepts such as “inventions” or “technology.” This suggests that the basic learning goals were communicated fairly well.