Summer Engineering Experience

(SEE 2018)


User Experience


User Research


Visual Design


Jul 2018-Sep 2018

3 Months


Hammers & Nails, 3D Printing, Laser Cutting, Vinyl Cutting, Wire-framing, Processing.js, Arduino IDE


The exhibit currently Installing at Birch Aquarium and educate 1000+ visitors

Initial Goal

Client: Birch Aquarium

Team Formation: 3 project managers, 4 hardware engineers, 3 software engineers, 3 UX designers, 3 advisers  

Task: Create a functional and interactive exhibit for educating guests about waves in ten weeks

Final Product

In the ocean, where sounds easily travel, animals must tune into specific frequency ranges to distinguish meaningful signals from noise. We built this exhibit to help visitors understand what it is like to be an animal in the ocean, trying to make meaning of their world.


First, visitors choose one animal from a selection of five aquatic animals. Mixed sounds from various sources, such as other animals and ship noises, start to play, imitating the sonal environment of a noisy ocean. They then use sliders to set maximum and minimum frequencies to find the frequency range at which their chosen animal communicates. As visitors change the frequency ranges by repositioning the sliders, the mixed sounds change in accordance with the frequency range. An LED strip light at the top of the interface panel turns green to indicate that the visitor has found the species' correct communicating frequency range. At this time, the filters filter out the other animal conversations and extraneous ship noises and only the specific species' sound will be heard.

Donor's event at Birch Aquarium, several members missing.

Stage 1 (Week 1-3)

Design Thinkings

We started the internship program brainstorming several design challenges without knowledge of our ultimate project theme.  After our brainstorming session, we went to Birch Aquarium to meet our core client, Nan Renner. She announced the project theme: WAVE. We then  participated in design jams and toured the aquarium, ending with an intensive discussion on the possibilities of representing waves, specifically:

1. What kind of waves are we representing?

       (Sound waves, water waves, mathematical waves...)

2. What are the wave behaviors?

       (Energy transmission, reflection, refraction, dispersion, absorption...)

3. What are the wave properties that we could represent?

       (Frequency, amplitude, interference...)

4. Who will be our main users for this exhibit?

       (Researchers, family with kids, travelers, students...)   


Nan Renner, senior director of learning design and innovation at Birch Aquarium, helps us get creative juices flowing at a design jam at Birch Aquarium. 

Sticky notes during needs & requirements discussion

Approved requirements for our wave exhibit

Needs & Requirements

After a one-day trip to the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the whole group was asked to develop our exhibit's goals. We first defined certain needs and requirements and then each wrote our own ideas on sticky notes.

Followed by Birch Aquarium's expectations outlined by their CASP guidelines — Conceptual Beauty, Aesthetic Delight, Social Interaction, and Physical Exploration, we added more key points to accommodate our specific project better. We decided that our four main requirements are Science, Logistics, Interactivity, and Inclusivity.

Before the presentation, Sam Knight, the board of UCSD Alumni Association, visited us and gave us advice on how to make our presentation more compelling. Afterward, we presented in front of the Birch Aquarium staff, who approved our specified needs and requirements!

Stage 2 (Week 4-6)

Concept Generation

After the initial project introduction, our work became more intensive. We spent a week developing various ideas for the actual exhibit. With hammers, foam, hot glue, PVC pipes, and the like, we turned our ideas into physical low-fidelity prototypes. It was a truly busy and productive time!


By the end of the week, we generated twenty-five concepts, from which we built twenty prototypes, and finally selected seven of those prototypes to keep developing.

Low-fidelity prototypes on tables, some were not shown.

Selected 7 projects, which are Wave Maching Game, Water Harp, Sprine, Make a Wave, Pan Flute, Bubble Project and the Maze. Please click each project for details. 

Project Refinement

The following week, Nan came to the Envision Maker Studio to check our progress. She gave comments on each of the seven selected projects. After that, we reviewed and pared our ideas down to three projects, which were Spine, Waving Matching Game, and the Maze.

Team Formation

Our next task was to refine and create three mid-fidelity prototypes. Therefore, we were divided into three groups to increase efficiency: ​​

Hardware: building all the physical components


Software: building an electrical and digital system


User Experience: creating game design and user interaction flow​

From this point, I was selected to be the UX designer.

Team formation diagram with overlapping field. 

Final Selection

Teamwork was definitely hard at the very beginning, but we soon learned how to best communicate with each other and work together. Eventually, we brought our three prototypes to Birch Aquarium and my teammates and I conducted a presentation there. After careful consideration, Birch Aquarium finally chose to move forward with the Wave Matching game.

Me presenting in front of clients from Birch Aquarium

Refined "Spine"

Refined "Maze"

Refined "Wave Matching Game", Winner

Stage 3 (Week 7-10)

Project Embodiment

At this time, we only focused on making one final exhibit: to make an interactive wave matching game to teach people the properties of waves. However, our client gave us a new challenge: incorporating the Scripps Institution of Oceanography research and natural sound recordings in the design.

So we were back to the drawing board — how might we integrate natural sounds?

Our initial idea was simply matching the frequencies of sine waves, but since natural sounds and pure tones are not directly comparable, we felt that it would be harder for visitors to understand the science we wanted to communicate if we were to use sine waves. We also wanted to avoid abstraction and loss of science due to representing natural sounds with pure tones. So, we had to come up with a different way for users to control a range of frequencies, rather than the frequency of a single sine wave.

With this challenge in mind, we refined our wave matching game. After some research, we realized that while the ocean would seem relatively soundless, it is actually quite loud: animal, ship, and machine sound all combine to create a cacophonous soundscape. We decided that we wanted our wave matching exhibit to focus on showing how animals communicate despite all the noises in the ocean.

Final Project 

Our end product was an interactive exhibit that helps visitors understand how various species of animals use different frequency ranges to communicate with members of their own species.

1. This is a pictorial representation of how the face of exhibit looks. Generally, it plays a marine life soundscape based on the frequency range the two sliders are at. 

2. First, visitors choose from a selection of five animals to find in the noisy ocean. For example, Mantis Shrimp

3. Sounds that are playing reflect where the sliders are positioned. Guests can slide the two sliders left and right. 

4. As visitors focus into specific ranges, only animals that communicate in that range can be heard. Therefore, they can move the sliders to change what is heard. 

5. Eventually, once visitors find the frequency range of the California mantis shrimp, they can only hear the shrimps call, because the sliders filter out the other animal conversations and extraneous ship noises

6. Once they get the right range, the green light will be turned on. 

Envision Maker Studio Faculty Director, Nate Delson, interacts with the wave matching exhibit. 

Final Result 

10 weeks

53 user interviews

100% success! 

Major Roles

  1. Construct logical flowcharts for three selected projects, conduct 53 user interviews to facilitate decision making.

  2. Program main code as well as electrical parts to incorporate Arduinos, potentiometer sensors, and button.

  3. Incorporate clients’ feedback into decisions, give two presentations to Birch Aquarium.

  4. Collaborate across disciplines: engineers, designers, project managers, and customers.


1. Always remember to brainstorm enough during the initial design process because that saves time later on in the project process.

2. Design thinking and user testings happen at every period, not just at the beginning.

3. Collaboration skills are tremendously helpful when working with people from different backgrounds.

4. Experience using various hand-tools and prototyping tools, such as 3D printing, laser cutting, and vinyl cutting.

5. Real-world experience of user testing.

6. Being able to account for real-life constraints like budget, time, available resources, etc.

7. Circuit design and other microcontrollers.

8. Experience is another word for making mistakes; don’t be afraid to make mistakes. :)

Thanks for visiting! 





Sunnyvale CA, 94086

© 2020 by Shirley Guo, Last update: 11/24/2020