Vertical Wind Tubes: An Introduction to Transactivity

Part of Exhibition:

Topic: The Nature of Science Subtopic: The Scientific Process

Case Study

of an Exhibit

by Dave Stroud

Published on March 12, 2010, Modified on March 24, 2012

  • Description and goals

    Vertical Wind Tubes: An Introdction to Transactivity

    Shrieks of joy and amazement fill the Try It! Lab. Coffee filters fly up and out of an enormous clear plastic tube. Kids chase after them as they float gently down from about 16 feet in the air. “That one almost got stuck on the light!” says a little girl as she catches her creation, “How can I get it all the way up there?” She rips her flying machine so it has bigger flaps and sticks it back into the huge tube for another flight. “It went higher but didn’t get stuck,” she says, “so now I’ll…” She makes more changes and keeps trying. Later, when her mother insists it time to go, she leaves her work lying on the table. Soon, a little boy picks it up, sticks it in the tube, watches it travel up and shouts, “Look what mine did!”

    Two large clear plastic tubes, surrounded by what appears at first glance to be trash on the floor, make up what is arguably the most popular exhibit in the Try It! Lab. Above the large tubes, the conduit and light fixtures are littered with paper, coffee filters and other items, the result of the activity of prior guests: a constant stream of objects flies through the tubes all day long, every day.

    The Vertical Wind Tubes are so engaging because they employ “transactivity”, a concept that takes exhibits to a new level. I came upon both the Wind Tubes and the concept of transactivity at the ASTC 2007 conference in Los Angeles. I am striving to incorporate transactivity into my exhibits wherever practical, resulting in a unique and higher quality experience for the guests. Transactivity helps to create a culture of learning and nurtures curiosity and inquiry.

    History of the Vertical Wind Tubes
    After noticing the Vertical Wind Tubes displayed by the PIE workshop, Corey Bowman and I decided this was a “must have” item for Discovery Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City. Our team soon built the first of what has become a series of Wind Tubes, in two venues. The tubes are also part of the Exploratorium’s traveling Tinkering exhibition, and can be seen in several other locations as well, such as the Children’s museum of Houston. Recently, the Thanksgiving Point exhibitions team created a portable version for an outreach program to take to locations around the Wasatch Front.

    What are Vertical Wind Tubes?

    Physical description:
    Construction of our Wind Tubes is relatively straight forward. They are based on the version developed by Mike Petrich and Karen Wilkinson of the PIE (Play Invent Explore) workshop.

    Household fans are mounted in tabletops, blowing air upward into clear 12 foot tall plastic tubes about 20 inches in diameter. Guests can place objects such as coffee filters, muffin cups, pipe cleaners, paper, drink cups and feathers into the tube and watch them ride the blowing air up and out of the tower.

    This mere description of the components of the Wind Tubes does not really indicate the true value of the exhibition, or explain why guests of all ages will play with them for 20 minutes (or much more) at a time, often returning to the Try It! Lab for a second session before leaving the museum for the day.

    Interpretive description:
    One of my colleagues asked me “Hey Dave, are you using these [Wind Tubes] to teach fluid dynamics to kids?” Since many of our guests are under six years old this seemed like an odd question to me, yet those principals are certainly at work here. I simply do not see the Wind Tubes as an exhibit that imparts facts to the user. Because they reveal concepts through experimentation, they go far beyond that. Due to their transactive nature, I believe the Wind Tubes actually change the way our guests think.

    The Wind Tubes intrinsically encourage a particular type of play that helps guests experience the way science works. The intent is for guests to internalize a science based mindset – do something, measure the outcome, make changes, do something, measure the outcome, compare the outcomes, make changes, do something, measure the outcome, compare the outcomes – repeat this process until you run out of time. The user experiences the phenomena by exploring it, rather than being shown an outcome and having it explained.

    One noteworthy feature of our version of the Wind Tubes is that there are no interpretive panels instructing guests how to interact with the exhibit. Yet guests of any age seem to have no trouble figuring out what to do. They simply utilize the numerous cues surrounding the Wind Tubes. These are the only instructions needed. Rather than being told how they are expected to play, guests explore the exhibit and discover what works.

    The most obvious cue is all the ‘stuff’ caught in the overhead lights and conduit, evidence of previous activity by other users. It is also a way to measure the success of a flight. In fact, some staff members call getting an object stuck overhead the “Badge of Honor.” If your object doesn’t get stuck, you can make a change and try again. And then again. And again.

    Another cue is the ‘trash’ on the floor surrounding the Wind Tubes. When guests finish using the Wind Tubes, they usually abandon their creations on the table or floor near the exhibit. These end points of guest interaction become the next guest’s starting point and give an indication of how the exhibit is meant to be used and what type of activity is to take place. The materials can be recycled over and over again before being replaced. Exhibit developer Mark Ellis puts it like this, “If I put out one thousand objects, they [the guests] will use all one thousand, then begin to reuse the materials on the floor. If I put out one hundred objects they will use all one hundred, and then begin to reuse the materials. If I put out twenty five objects, well, you get the idea!” Reuse is another, more minor, message of the exhibit. The Wind Tubes would consume a lot of resources without reuse.

    Most guests fly or modify single objects, say by tearing a cup to give it fins making it perform differently. However some guests combine several objects into conglomerate flying objects that can accomplish tasks such as lifting heavy objects or remaining in the plastic tube for a long period of time.

    In short, guests can build anything they want from the available materials, and test it. In contrast, I have seen versions of the wind tubes at other venues where the exhibition staff has created objects for guests to fly. Propellers and rings are provided and guests can see how each acts in the wind currents. But these objects cannot be modified, so guests can only experience what the exhibit developers provide them. (I found it gratifying to see one small boy stick a handful of grass into one of these other exhibits!) The small changes that guests make in their own creations can have large impact on the way the invention performs, and that is one of the most important aspects of this exhibit in my opinion.

    What I am Learning from the Vertical Wind Tubes
    The Wind Tubes have helped my team and I probe the question “what is learning?” To paraphrase Paul Tatter of Explora! the goal of learning should not be to remember a lot of facts, but instead should be to change people’s lives by changing their relationships with other people, with the things around them, and with themselves. Some things have more educational value than others. That value is identified by transactivity.

    The most basic explanation of transactivity is: the exhibit changes the user and the user changes the exhibit.

    Tatter explains that exhibits and programs with “transactive” qualities “loosely means that they contain many manipulable materials that change through use and also provide open-ended opportunities for people’s habits of action and behaviors to be changed as a result of their engagement with those materials.”

    So transactivity moves beyond interactivity. To me, the Wind Tubes embody the concept of transactivity – the guest’s creations are part of the exhibit, and ultimately the exhibit changes guest’s connections to the world. Transactive exhibits seem to cause guests to engage in play, stay longer, and ask a specific type of questions while using exhibits. The connection is different, stronger, deeper, and potentially more meaningful that mere memorizing. These qualities result in open ended, highly interactive exhibits that promote the more-questions-than-answers philosophy of exhibit development and design that I aspire to.

    Items key to the concept of transactivity include:
    • The user and the exhibit are changed by each other
    • There is evidence of activity by previous users
    • Things start to happens quickly when a guest begins to use an exhibit (multiple entry points)
    • Guests can use the exhibit the way they want to or that seems obvious to them (multiple paths)

    The transactive quality results in:
    • Making guests less reliant on “authority” to answer questions
    • A higher level of engagement and deeper investigation
    • Longer time spent with the exhibit
    • Guests defining their own success and making their own meaning (user defined outcomes)
    • Guest interaction ending due to external reasons such as running out of time
    • Generating a particular category of questions such as: How can I get it to…? What if I…? Instead of: Why does it…? What makes it…?

    I see transactivity as an important quality to strive for. It is difficult to apply to every exhibit and situation, but asking the question “could this have more transactive qualities?” has improved my team’s exhibits. While there is surely room for fact based exhibits, I feel that the type of play that transactive exhibits promote primes guests for assimilating those facts into knowledge.

    Does the Vertical Wind Tubes exhibit work?
    A staff member describes our Wind Tubes as the “King of Exhibits” in the Try It! Lab. This is a strong sentiment that is based on the fact that guests spend a lot of time playing with them. Using engagement as a measure of success, the wind tubes are certainly successful.

    The Wind Tubes greatest strength is that guests use the exhibit in the way they want so they can make their own meanings as they use it, learning what they want to, when they want to. Toddlers, kids, adults, boys, girls, all seem to find the exhibit deeply compelling. They create goals for themselves. These goals are not based on graphics or instructions, but rather are developed through play. This play starts spontaneously based on the cues provided by the exhibit itself. This exhibit is not frightening or technologically imposing, so parents play with their kids for a long time and seem unconcerned that they may be asked a question that they cannot answer.

    The Wind Tubes appear to stick in the minds of many guests after they leave the museum. It is not unheard of for guests to bring their own wind tube supplies with them to play with. Many guests tell staff members that this is their favorite exhibit and has prompted this return visit.

    My ongoing challenge is convincing some folks that the overhead ‘stuff’ is actually an integral component of the exhibit and not just a mess. The exhibits staff has been having this conversation for several years in several venues. But it is a conversation I enjoy, it recommits me to my vision of the Wind Tubes every time I have it. And hey, science is messy!

    There is also some pressure on me to “explain something” with the Wind Tubes exhibit. I resist because I strongly feel its value lies elsewhere. If someone else is motivated to develop educational programming for the Wind Tubes I would be willing to test it, on a temporary basis. My past experience leads me to believe there would be less exploration on the part of guests if more specific information were to be introduced. Even simple graphics such as “make this” seem to lead guests view the process as “done” once they complete the pictured task. On the other hand, certain concepts and facts might have a meaningful context if introduced while guests are engaged with the Vertical Wind Tubes.


    I have included in my list of collaborators people who I consider to be influential in both this particular exhibit and the concept of transactivity. I am confident I have unintentionally left people out. Please feel free to point out my oversights and I will correct them.

  • Exhibit Opened: August 2009

  • Location: Lehi, None, United States

  • Estimated Cost: Less than $5,000 (US)

Latest Comments (1)

Agreed, totally.

by Steve Fetsch - April 29, 2010

My children and I experienced vertical wind tunnels at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and this activity stands out in my memory, even against the many other superb offerings there. There was a little guidance offered there, like the challenge of making an object that remains airborne within the tube for 30 seconds or more. No required procedure or pedantic discussion of the physics of the exhibit, but a little structure so we didn’t feel lost. All participants could work at their own level and pace. We never felt rushed to make room for others, nor limited to the pursuit of a right answer.
Thank you for your “bit.” (And thanks to the Pittsburgh staff, too, for your inspiring work.)

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