So Watt: An Illuminating Look At Energy

Topic: Physical Sciences Subtopic: Energy

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Erik Smith

Published on April 24, 2008

  • Description and goals

    The goal was to provide a small exhibition that would allow visitors to explore some of the ways electricity is generated, explore the pros and cons of major types of electricity generation as well as learn about conservation efforts to implement at home. The exhibition presents six major methods of electricity generation (fossil fuel, large hydro, nuclear, geothermal, solar, and wind) allowing the visitor to compare the advantages and disadvantages of each method. There is an emphasis on solar photovoltaic electricity generation, as we wished to focus public attention on the 10,000 square feet of solar PV panels on our building roof that generates up to 100 KWatts of electricity for the San Diego region. There is a computer touch-screen that allows visitors to see real-time and historical data regarding the amount of electricity being generated by the solar panels on the roof. While the exhibition does highlight solar energy production, the exhibition does not “preach” that one type of energy production is the “best”. The visitors are allowed (even asked) to decide for themselves which form of electricity production they believe is most suitable for the future.

  • Development process and challenges

    Development began with the help of an advisory comittee that met to discuss ideas for interactives and content to be included in the exhibition. From that discussion we decided what we would actually cover. The space for the exhibition is a small (about 500 sq. ft.) area at the top of a staircase that lead to a relatively narrow thoroughfare. Space available for interactive components was limited. I was careful to ensure that each component within the exhibition could be approached independent of having seen or not seen another.

    The entire project was divided into three major parts: exhibition content (research and writing), design & fabrication of components, and graphic production. Content and graphics were done in-house, while design and fabrication was outsourced. Coordination of these three aspects was challenging, as many components had integrated layers of graphics, images, and text within the physical exhibit components. In some cases content drove design while in other cases the opposite was true, and when it came down to actual fabrication, engineering affected everything.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    With design and fabrication taking place offsite, and minimal budget or time set aside for real prototyping of the interactive components, we found that some components broke or didn’t work once the kids got to them. Re-engineering post-installation was an ongoing issue for several months. To be fair, I don’t think we expected the level of use (and abuse) that these exhibits would be subjected to. Lesson learned: Include prototyping in the budget, and prototype with the public.

    When coordinating an exhibition development team of designers, engineers, and graphic designers it helps to meet regularly so miscommunication is avoided. Having production offsite can be problematic, particularly when precise measurements are required.

    When “value engineering” exhibits be careful that you don’t lose the real value from the piece.

    Despite all of these challenges, the exhibition is very popular with visitors. The hand crank generators comparing incandescent to CFL lighting is a favorite with the kids and gets the message across about the energy required to power each. The movable solar panels provide a bit of a challenge as people try to make something happen. These exhibits provide visitors an opportunity to explore different aspects of the exhibit and investigate for themselves how they work. The opportunity for visitors to share their own opinions, by “voting” for the energy source THEY think should be used most for generating electricity in the future, is also popular. I occasionally see students dilligently pouring over the content as they are researching for some school assignment they are working on. Overall I feel the exhibition strikes a decent balance between explicitly presenting rich science content and inviting thoughtful interactive experimentation.

  • Exhibition Opened: September 2007

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: San Diego, CA, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $100,000 to $500,000 (US)

  • Size: Less than 1,000 sq ft.

  • Other funding source(s): SDG&E; Shell Trading; Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation

  • Website(s):

Latest Comments (2)

Fragile 12 V CFL?

by Michael Flynn - May 18, 2008

These hands-on, interactive exhibits in the “So Watt” exhibition look fun!
Many of the expensive 12VDC CFL bulbs in my generator bike prototype have quit working after just a few hours of use. I think my lamps get damaged by the fluctuating voltage as the kids spin up the generator. (I’m using a brushed, permanent-magnet motor/generator.) Can anyone share a trick that might help my pedal powered CFL bulbs survive heavy use in a museum setting?

CFL Dilemma

by Erik Smith - February 10, 2009

We had to convert from 12VDC CFL lamps to 120VAC Dimmable Lamps. The DC powered lamps did not stand up to the continual cycling and had to be replaced too often. We switched to standard AC lamps, but those also did not stand up to the on and off cycling. We found that dimmable CFL lamps, while initially more costly, last considerably longer and are well worth the initial cost.

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