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physical prototyping / education

The phrase “children are naturally scientists” is one we hear often. And yet, these innate qualities in children may be hindered by an obsessive attachment to mobile devices. As a response, we developed FantaSTICK, a fun tool that augments the classroom experience for children, through guidance and structure that can support their natural curiosity and activity and ultimately empower them to engage with the outdoors.

FantaSTICK is divided into detachable modules corresponding to colors and tasks. The purple module stores tools, the blue, litmus paper for testing PH, the green, plants or flowers, the orange, insects, and the yellow, soil as well as a moisture sensor. To begin the journey into the outdoors, parents and teachers place beacons in areas with data they would like the children to explore. When a child finds a beacon, a light at the top of their handle will indicate which module should be used for sensing or collecting. After a fun adventure, children can take their discoveries back to the classroom or the home, where teachers and parents can use an online platform that visualizes and records these discoveries through an interactive map and a personal profile. Changes in this data over time, as well as changes in the level of activity of the children, can be used to spark conversation, education, and further discovery.

Final Video for Fantastick. By Alyssa Li, Lieyah Dagan, Arnaud Bard de Coutance, Silvia Kim

Our Team

Alyssa Li. Arnaud Bard de Coutance, Lieyah Dagan, Silvia Kim

My Role

User Researcher, Interaction Designer, Design Technologist

Recognition & Awards

This project was nominated by Berkeley faculty to appear in the Made at Berkeley book.


“children are naturally scientists”

While we hear this phrase often, children still need guidance and structure to turn their natural curiosity and activity into something more scientific. Children’s curiosity and need to make the world a more predictable place certainly drives them to explore and draw conclusions and theories from their experiences. However, they need guidance from an educator to practice science—to engage in rich scientific inquiry.

In our secondary research and literature review, we found that with the growing understanding of the power of children’s early thinking and learning, early childhood settings are extremely important in the children’s learning during their later years [Worth, Karen]. Research shows that most children have formed an opinion (either positive or negative) about science by the time they reach the age of 7 [Splanger, Steve]. This implies that early childhood educators have a great impact and influence on a child’s potential to seek out a career in science or engineering. Hence, science may serve not only to build a basis for future scientific understanding but also to build important skills and attitudes for learning.

Ethnographic User Research

As a group, we looked back on our personal experiences in science classrooms and discussed the problems within it. We found our own science instruction to be mostly text-based, with a lot of time spent in the classroom. In essence, there were minimal outdoor exploration and hands-on learning. We thought this was a crucial problem to address, as learning from text is very different from first-hand experiences, as we have discovered during our background research.

After additional interviews with two children, we had two key insights: 1) education within classroom settings are boring for young children, and  is unable to capture their attention span and interest, and 2) even outside the classroom, children are not having enough outdoor physical activity due to attachment to mobile devices and screens. These insights were consistent with our secondary background research as discussed above, and further confirmed the need for what we were building.

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With these insights, we built Fantastick, an interactive modular stick to encourage children to sense, explore, and experience nature

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Our Design Process

Modular Design

The modular aspect of the design was used to allow children to collect and sample a variety of features, rather than being limited to one single module, which we felt could limit this exploration. This method allows for a more diverse learning approach, that provides room for changes or variation. In addition, we wanted the modules to be detachable and attachable, allowing children to mix and match based off of their needs or interests; this aspect inspired by traditional toys. While initially we did not plan to color code the modules, we realized that in order to direct and supplement their experience, the addition of the colors could not only be aesthetically exciting but also could help them easily identify different tasks. Additionally, we imagined that being able to build or deconstruct, as part of the process, could be an enjoyable and interactive way to engage the children. Kids would find it more fun and interactive that way where they are able to build and deconstruct with their hands.

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Use of Beacons

In addition to the stick, we added the component of beacons, which helps to gamify the experience of exploration and discovery. While initially we imagined that rather than beacons, kids would be able to use GPS to mark the locations where they found data, we felt like the beacons provided an important aspect of motivation and direction. These bluetooth enabled beacons are tethered to the children’s stick, and placed in areas of interest by the teacher or parent. When a student walking with Fantastick comes closer to a beacon, the beacon sends signals to the stick making it light up to a certain color. Depending on which color lights up at the top of the stick, the child will know what module to work on. We initially only imagined that the child’s stick would light up in one color, but in order to direct the children and let them know what to collect, we added this color system.

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Soil Moisture Sensor

While initially we did not include this component, we felt like it was a necessary educational addition that would allow children to sense and learn during their adventure, rather than after, since most of the other modules are for sampling or collection (aside from the PH module). Here, we also would have liked to explore more sensing technology, however, with the limited time, we decided on the soil moisture sensor because it could be integrated at the bottom in a way that visually was intuitive for a stick and could engage the ground in a few way for children as they walk around.

Electronic Components

Electronic Components

For the final design, we ultimately ended up with two independent systems on the stick: the sensor at the bottom with Neopixel strips, and the beacon scanner at the handle with Neopixel rings. Ultimately, we made this decision because we felt it was important to utilize the entire stick, and we felt like placing all the systems at the top might be too visually confusing for the children, since two sets of LED systems next to each other could become complex and disorienting. The electronics at the bottom of the stick consisted of a soil moisture sensor and a neopixel strip. So depending on the moisture level of the soil, the LED would change colors. If the soil is dry, it lights up red and if the soil is wet, it lights up green. We decided to use the LED display method instead of a numerical display because we felt like color is more easy and fun to engage with for children. Here, we spent time researching the range of moisture in order to accurately reflect this in the colors we chose. The electronics at the top of the stick consisted of a neopixel ring and a bluetooth sensor. So as the stick gets closer to the beacon, the LED at the top lights up according to the color of the corresponding module. We decided to put this at the top instead of at the side for the child to easily notice the light turning on using their peripheral vision. It would have been a challenging user experience to have the child bend over to the side to see if the side of the stick is lighting up.

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Data Visualization

Fantastick is accompanied by a website(currently a prototype). This is a platform where the kids and teachers/parents are able to keep a visual memory of all the accomplishments achieved with Fantastick. The website is comprised of a welcome page with a cute character and a replica of Fantastick which is labeled by the respective color and module that corresponds to each specific task. Tasks range from collecting PH levels with litmus paper, collecting bugs, collecting plants, and measuring soil moisture levels. There is also a map component with all the beacons that were placed by the teacher for the student to discover on their own. The black dots with question marks are yet unexplored areas to be discovered. Once the student finds a beacon, completes the task and collects the data, the beacon on the website changes to a color accordingly. There is also a profile page for each student where they are able to look at their findings such as which beacons were found, the level of moisture on the soil, how many bugs, PH level, etc… Now with all the information that is collected, they can bring to the classroom and discuss it through the data comparison page. This page can be used to spark discussion around data which is very important and relevant nowadays.



& Future Work

Overall, we felt that this was successful as a prototype, but there is still room for improvement and self-critique. We found that the modular system on its own could provide a more open ended design that can be reinterpreted or customized based off of the interests of children. This version, however, was color coded because we felt like in the context of the classroom, providing clear labels via the stick, coupled with LED indicators, would be useful in clearly conveying information for children in a bright and straightforward way. While we find this valuable, we also imagine that the system could be further customized based off of the needs of children and or parents and teachers.

For the beacon aspect, we felt that it would be useful in further directing children for specific assignments, but we feel it could also be more optional to allow children to explore on their own terms, and would therefore focus more on sensing opportunities. For the soil moisture sensor, we used LEDs to display this information in a simple way, however we acknowledge that this would need some reworking in order to more accurately represent the moisture for children, and we imagine this could be done by sending the actual data to a website, or creating a wider range of colors for moisture differences, rather than just red or green. Reflecting on our final design, we acknowledge that some pieces are not very ergonomic, or user friendly (like the handle, and the cap at the bottom, which needs to be removed by hand), so if this project would expand, we would look to solve these issues through more user testing. Aside from this, we find GPS could be used to mark locations where data has been found, so that the map aspect could be more accurate.

While the website portion we developed was only a prototype, fully implementing this aspect could be useful in visualizing data, but aside from this, changes in the data over time, as well as changes in the level of activity of the children, can be used to spark conversation, education, and further discovery. In terms of the actual content, it currently does not reflect accurate information, so in future iterations, we would look to develop this aspect in order to ensure proper education opportunities for children. We also imagine this project expanding to many schools, where a national map could display data from classes all around the country, and not only create new knowledge, but also allow for the sharing of knowledge.