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Climate Kids 1.0

Tangible Interaction Design / Education

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Tangible Interaction Design / Education

Our work began with the question: how could we best teach the next generation about climate change? Despite the prevalence of climate change statistics and on-going news circulation in the media, many find themselves unable to relate to the real-life manifestations of these changes. Fewer still feel the personal efficacy to defend against climate change in their day-to-day lives, or imagine future threats if they are currently unaffected. These barriers compound for kindergarten-aged children, for whom it may be very difficult to comprehend technical scientific research. By fostering such an understanding, and, more importantly, a sense of personal responsibility, we hope to see a new generation of climate change leaders.

This is the first version of our prototype. View the second version here.

Our Team

Alyssa Li, Gabriela Cibils, Parina Gujral, Franchesca Spektor

My Role

Researcher, Interaction Designer, Design Technologist

Recognition & Awards

Climate Kids was awarded the Ignite Grant by Jacobs Institute of Design, UC Berkeley. 

Find out more here.

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The Problem

For young children, it is almost impossible to grasp complicated feedback loops regarding climate change in a way that relates to daily life inside the classroom.

We embarked on our project by first looking into how kids learn inside the classroom. We realized that children in this age-group often learn through tangible objects, particularly by animating dolls and robots, or constructing mini-cities. These playful interactions have in common the fact that they allow for the co-construction of an immersive universe.


Our Solution

We designed an interactive ecosystem to make climate change easy to understand and to help children develop their personal investment in these issues by demonstrating the cause and effect cycle of energy usage.

This type of embodied, physical play provided the key to our conception of a learning model for climate change: our first prototype takes the form of an enclosed village ecosystem, situated inside a kindergarten classroom. This village is connected to the classroom’s light system, and measures the energy expenditure of the classroom. After considering multiple environmentally related inputs, such as trash sorting and water usage, we decided to focus on the light switch because it was the most direct and comprehensible representation of “energy.” Inside our light-connected ecosystem, every child receives a model for a wooden house, which they can assemble themselves and decorate. This tiny house then sits atop an LED and, becomes part of the village as their personal avatar. Amidst negative and positive feedback generated by the ecosystem, each child’s avatar remains their personal connection to the state of the environment.

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The Ecosystem

We envisioned an interactive environment functioning through a mapping between the energy reading of an ecosystem, and the Arduino. The entire systems' state is measured by the variable labeled "Energy". The layout consists of multiple outputs through a singular ecosystem, which produces negative or positive environmental effects.


Energy Use

There are two inputs which control the “Energy” in the ecosystem: the lighting system, and the crank. While the ecosystem is running, Energy depletes (eg when lights are on). Too much energy depletion leads to negative effects within the ecosystem, such as lights shutting off and smog. However, balance can be achieved once again my regenerating energy using the crank.

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The Crank

Students are given the opportunity to improve the conditions with their effort. This takes form in a crank, which acts as a metaphor for energy generation. Once students turn the crank, the energy bar begins to rise and the negative effects gradually disappear. If one is able to generate energy beyond the neutral state, positive effects emerge in the following order: smoke generation is inhibited, windmills turn on, lights turn on, sounds of birds chirping, a gradual sunrise and finally a rainbow light show.


Phase 1: Exploration

We first explored related work in interfaces related to climate change.

  • InterANTARCTICA is an installation designed and led by Caitilin de Berigny and created by a team of artists and students from The University of Sydney. Uses a tangible interactive installation environment with physical models to visualize an evolving landscape. 

  • Reefs on the Edge similarly employs physical objects to act as interactive controls atop a screen display. Auditory and visual art is also often used to bring climate change to life, such as the soundscapes of sound-designer Michael Bates.

  • While such displays may now exist in museum spaces, schools also are beginning to integrate environmental education into the classroom setting. For instance, the Environmental Education Resource Pack by UNICEF provides a modular lesson plan for incorporating this content into the daily lives of young children. This resource was especially appropriate for our understanding of the complexity of environmental concepts as compared to age. 

We then explored how children already learning in their natural environment.

We found that young children are involved in a variety of physical activities. They are playing with dolls, barbies, houses, cars, robots. This relates to a mini-universe they have to take care of and think of as “mine”. Class tends to be interactive with activities that lend the hand as their primary tools, in order to utilize their energy. Hence, our solution could follow a route involved movements. All these things point to how we should take advantage of interactive learning.

Interactive education puts climate change at fingertips
— Reference to Psychologist Shephard in Installation InterANTARCTICA

Phase 2: Conceptualization and System Design

All of our research point to how we should take advantage of interactive learning. With the problem and user group in perspective, we sought to:

  • Make a sensory, visually exciting, and interactive display

  • Allow kids to see themselves in climate change, and feel personally affected by these issues

  • Understand cause and effect through play

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In a kindergarten class, each student is provided a 3D printed or wooden house as their avatar with an LED inside

  • They personalize it through decoration: paint, glitter, stickers, objects etc

  • Once they are done, all avatars go inside the ‘park’ which represents their ecosystem— our TUI interactive system: the houses

  • When the ecosystem is running, “energy” is being depleted. If too much energy is depleted, the ecosystem will display negative effects. To make the park nice again and protect their houses, they have to regenerate the energy they lost

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Negative Feedback

When energy is wasted, negative effects snowball on a condensed timeline:

  • House lights begin to go off — there is not enough energy left to keep everyone’s home cozy; waste creates externalities for others

  • Water lights begin to go off — overconsumption of energy causes degradation in aquatic life

  • Fog starts to pile up — pollution and smog is created through excess energy production, especially when those energies are not yet clean

  • Sounds of natural disasters — small actions accumulate to create huge effects


What can the class do to reverse negative effects of climate change?

Generate clean energy!

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Postive Feedback

When energy is generated, positive effects slowly restore the park to health:

  • Smoke goes away — pollution begins to heal itself with the kids’ “clean energy”

  • Lights turn on — now there is enough energy to go around for everyone

  • Birds start to sing — humans aren’t the only species being affected

  • Visualization of bright sun with LEDs — turbulent weather patterns calm

  • Visualization of rainbow with LEDs — pleasant weather

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Phase 3: Technical Implementation

  • Each house is connected to an LED mounted to the park, with circuitry underneath

  • Neopixel LEDs to display calmer and pleasant weather

  • Speakers control positive and negative weather patterns

  • Processing for visual feedback display of energy consumption

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Progress Photos

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“Smog” Implementation

Using Dry Ice would require extensive care, both around people and the heavy circuitry surrounding this project. Hence, early on we diverged from this idea. We needed to find alternative means of smog creation. To produce impersonated smog safely, we created a device that would automatically trigger the release of the smog when the energy levels in the program had depleted. 

In order to do so, we used an ordinary vaporizer to create the smog and used the casing to enclose the smog. To trigger the release of the vape, we attached a servo which when moved an angle by the Arduino, would put the button the vaporizer. 

“Energy” Generation - Technical Challenges

Since the Arduino runs on asynchronous programming, this posed a challenge as we needed to ensure that the turns on the crank does lead to an “energy” increase in the ecosystem without delay. Since the crank required recording of rotary encoder data, it needed to be measured every time it was used. We found the solution in the interrupt function, which pauses all other functions to focus on the rotary encoder. However, this led to other challenges such as the number of turns not updating when someone were to turn the crank continuously. In retrospect, we could have added a timer on the interrupt function to allow for the calculations in the main loop.


Phase 4: Evaluation

Once we completed the final prototype, we presented in at the UC Berkeley School of Information TUI Showcase and recieved feedback from visitors and colleagues. During the showcase, our exhibition was set diagonally to allow a full 180-degree view of the output. The crank was placed in front of the boxed ecosystem, and the screen was displayed in a rectangular cutout. We placed a Climate Kids kit in front of the exhibit with unattached house pieces and decorative tools. Combatively, we received positive reactions from the users, who were enthused by the visual display of the environment we created and the pocket size imitations of the objects in reality. The interaction and coordination amongst the components allowed the cause-and-effect nature of the project to emerge. It was interesting to notice how the project was organically gamified, where the users attempted to get turn the crank as much as they could in order to ‘achieve’ the rainbow. This garnered a lot of attention, something we hope to pursue more deeply in our iteration.

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Climate Kids Memoribilia

For some personalization, we decided to take our sketches are create Climate Kids memorabilia for our upcoming showcase.

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Our team with our professor, Kimiko Ryokai, and PhD student Noura Howell