Allison Berman

Inspiring interest in biology through a Field Research and Picnic Kit


Explore the incredible diversity of plant life and learn about the importance of algae while you enjoy a sunny day in the park. Using 3D printing and traditional fine art techniques I have created a set of servingware based on the shapes of a subset of algae called "diatoms", to help you learn as you eat. Meanwhile, algae-based recipes show you how algae is important to humans beyond their role in the oxygen cycle and food chain. You can connect with the information in an entirely new way - through touch, taste, and smell. An included microscope and sample kit explores the variety of these microscopic life forms. Finally, your field research guidebook shows the connections between single-celled organisms and the grass and trees surrounding you.

Kit contains field guide and recipe book, 2 plates, 2 bowls, 2 cups, 2 sets of flatware, pocket microscope, box of slides, and sample tubes. This complete field research kit fits neatly into a standard picnic basket.

Diatoms have a remarkable variety of shapes and textures, which follow the same mathematical principles as super-shapes (see equations by Johan Gielis). These forms allowed them to adapt to conditions throughout the world, in freshwater and sea water, even in wetlands. They are responsible for at least 20% of the ocean's primary production. And they are used throughout the world in industrial and home applications. Their remarkable porous shells absorb so well that they are used as dessicants the world over, and they are used as filters for everything from pool water to flavored syrups. And yet these incredibly useful and beautiful single-celled organisms are not well known. It is time for them to take center stage! Bringing their shapes and textures to a larger scale will let people see, feel, and connect to these important organisms. And diatoms are just a subgroup of the divisions of algae. Algae plays a role in every aspect of our lives.

Primary audience - Adults, young adults, families. Secondary audience - Children, Secondary School students.

Primary audience are adults and young adults with high curiosity and playfulness. They have the means to organize a picnic, and the willingness to explore their environment. They love having a chance to learn at their own pace, and about their own neighborhood - outside of a laboratory!

Children need guidance - by family members or teachers, who can plan the excursion. Depending on their age, they may be able to use the microscope and take notes about the trip, or simply listen to an adult describe the connections between what's in the lake and what's in their food.

User Scenario
Two friends plan a picnic in Central Park for the weekend. They prepare food and drinks for their trip, including several algae-based suggestions from the recipe book. They pack seasoned dried seaweed snacks, sushi, salad and salad dressing, and gummy candies. They find it funny to know that there is algae in more than just the seaweed - algal extracts make the salad dressing creamy and form the gel of their gummy candies!

They love the park and want to know more about the plant life there. What lives in the water of the lake and rivers? Turning to their picnic kit, they pull out the field guide and read about the plant life and food chain of New York lakes. They take a dropper and sample vial and collect a bit of lake water, then put a drop on a slide. The guidebook tells them about what they might see, and they pull out a few sample slides for reference. It is spring and the lake surface is full of Navicula and Coccodiscus diatoms, as well as other algae like Cymbella. These are some species that are particularly common in New York. They draw a few pictures of what they see in the notebook, and then settle down on a blanket to eat. Filling the bowls with greens, they think about the complex shape of the bowl - based on Acanthus, the spiky bowl is a very distant relative of the plants they are about to eat! The plates, based on the same Coccodiscus genus they just looked at, are loaded up with sushi wrapped in nori. Yum! They flip idly through the manual to read about kelp as they munch through their seaweed snacks. The beautiful texture of the plate is slowly revealed as they consume their food. How funny that thousands of these shapes are floating around in the water right now.

My prototypes range from VeroClear transparent 3D printing material printed on the Objet printer, to PLA models printed on ITP's MakerBot Replicator, to Sculpey polymer clay prototypes, to Epoxy Resin clear casts of prototypes. A pocket microscope (plastic, durable) and slide kit (plastic) provide accurate reference material. Thick-walled plastic or glass sample jars allow collection from local excursions. A printed paper lab notebook and field guide contains information and recipes for the picnic. These objects are housed in a wicker picnic basket.

Prototyping: The first clay I tried was too soft to hold spikes. The next clay was too dry and stiff to hold together in thin walls. The third clay was sturdy and held detail, but had to be heated on a hot plate in order to work with it - and as oil clay, it could never be fully hardened. I finally found that Sculpey clay worked well for prototyping the shapes and textures I wanted - though the final forms had too many fine details and thin walls to fully realize without 3D printing.

I studied SketchUp, Rhinocerous, and finally Z-Brush. Z-Brush was ideal for organic forms, but had a massive learning curve. Thank goodness for the helpful AMS staff! I have worked with basic additive 3D printing in the past, but I knew I would need to surround my objects in support material for them to keep their delicate shapes. I chose the Objet printer for my first and spiniest model. More smooth-walled pieces could be done on MakerBots - much faster and cheaper. The 3D design and printing process took far longer than I ever anticipated.

To make the field guide, I learned Adobe InDesign for the first time. This has been a lesson in product design as much as educational design. I am grateful to have taken Interpretive Exhibition Design, which gave me a new perspective on designing educational material.