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Inspiring awe for and creating opportunities to interact with the often invisible and overlooked beauty and importance of microscopic organisms at Mesa Verde National Park

Partner Organization: CU Museum of Natural History, Mesa Verde National Park

Diatoms produce 25-40% of the oxygen we breathe in, they make up a significant part of the base of our food web, and are used in a variety of everyday products from wine to reflective street paint. Yet most of use have never seen a diatom before, or even know what diatoms are (they're single celled algae with intricate "skeletons" made out of silica). Diatoms can be found almost anywhere that you can find water and the types of diatoms that you find in a body of water can tell a story about water quality and health.

As a part of an ongoing relationship between Mesa Verde National Park and the CU Museum Studies program, museum scientists and curators have visited the park to do research on the biological and anthropological features of the park, including research on diatoms. Students from CU visit the park every summer to tell stories about this partnership and the research taking place at the park through visitor-facing programs and hands-on interactions.


I worked with the Museum Studies program and student facilitators to develop an interaction that told a story about diatoms and diatom research at the park. This was one of many stories including geology, vertebrate zoology, and anthropology.



Through interviews with Patrick Kociolek, diatom scientist and director of the CU Museum of Natural History, and with student and faculty faciliators of the summer park program, it was collectively decided that: 


the focus of this interaction should be on making these microscopic organisms visible and touchable to inspire awe and spark curiosity in visitors about diatoms.

At first I imagined a sensory bin style interaction. I began to create 3D printed diatoms and placed them in tubs of water beads. Water beads were used because placing diatoms in a tub of water wouldn't be as interesting, they would all sink to the bottom. Placing the models in water beads allows you to place the diatoms at different depths, and when filled with the right amount of water, the water beads seem to disappear. However the facilitators worried that the beads might make a mess at the table and in the park. We decided to place the models in glass jars of water beads for visitors to observe instead and printed multiples of each diatom model so that visitors could still touch the diatoms. 

Several tactile interactions were developed, some purposefully such as the 3D printed diatoms but some were happy surprises. In one case, while experimenting with making a scientist's micrographs touchable through 3D printing, I discovered that the print acted as a great mold. You could press model magic into the print to create a 3D recreation of a diatom from a real scientific image. 

After much experimenting these were the final materials developed for this interaction that traveled to Mesa Verde National Park over the summer: 

  • A guide for student facilitators 

  • Laser cut diatom stamps created from micrographs of diatoms that were discovered at Mesa Verde National Park

  • A water bead filled environment featuring 3D printed models of diatoms found at Mesa Verde National Park

  • 3D printed diatoms for visitors to touch and interact with

Dig Deeper

3D printing for patient education

Making Diatoms Using 3D Printed Tools

Recreating the foot of a wooly mammoth

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