No. 186

Circular Species

By : Fernanda Dobal

Entrant’s location : United Kingdom



Circular Species is a toy that combines bio materials and digital technology in order to teach children aged 8 to 11 about the carbon cycle. It comes with three components: a digital app, a physical woolly mammoth toy and a seed package. First the child plays with the mammoth and the app, using the app to learn about the life of the woolly mammoth and see its respiration process. When the child is ready, they can bury the toy in their backyard and plant the seeds nearby. Over the course of a few weeks, the external shell of the mammoth biodegrades and the seeds sprout. The then uses augmented reality to teach the child about the parts of the carbon cycle happening underground, including biodegradation and fossilisation. When a few weeks are up, the app prompts the child to excavate the skeleton just like a palaeontologist!

What did you create?

I created Circular Species, which is a toy in the shape of a woolly mammoth that combines natural materials with augmented reality to teach children about the carbon cycle. I created the concept of the toy, inspired by my little sister, for who I wrote a time capsule letter that she will open in 5 years. I thought, what if we could use biodegradable materials to make things that we bury and then excavate a while later to find a different treasure? That gave me the idea of using biomaterials to give kids the experience of being palaeontologists and get to learn about the biological processes that allow fossils to be preserved and discovered! From this idea I experimented with biodegradable materials including mycelium and coconut and algae based materials to create a prototype of the woolly mammoth toy with an internal skeleton made from 3D printed PLA. I also developed the prototype for the augmented reality mobile application that shows the invisible processes happening.

Why did you make it?

I created Circular Species in order to both encourage children to be interested in science and teach them about one of the most fundamental cycles of biology, the carbon cycle, in an interactive and immersive way that combined learning and play. I believe that interdisciplinary experiential learning leads to more engaged students who retain the knowledge of what they have learned better. I also wanted to create a toy that would encourage kids to play outside and be in contact with nature, while still using the benefits of emerging technology. Having contact with nature is beneficial for several reasons, including improved well being and a feeling of connection to the environment and engagement in wanting to learn more about science. I interviewed several science teachers, who said students often struggle with understanding and visualising the invisible forces of nature, like gravity or breathing. I thought augmented reality provided the perfect opportunity to make those things visible in the "real world" and therefore ground learning of science into something visual and therefore memorable. I also wanted to explore the potential for new biodegradable materials as a way to design sustainable educational toys that have a good environmental impact.

How did you make it?

Starting with the premise of using biomaterials to make a biodegradable toy, I conducted two rounds of design ideation. In between, I consulted educators for feedback and landed on the concept of a mammoth that is buried and then its skeleton excavated by the user. Various educational focuses were considered, such as evolution, but through more interviews with science teachers, it was decided that the project focus on the carbon cycle, which was wide enough to include photosynthesis and fossilisation and very important to understanding climate change. I tested the final concept with groups of 10-11 year olds in New York and London classrooms. Material research was conducted through experimentation, both in the creation of new materials and evaluation of the rate of biodegradation. The final products uses coconut coir because it is a food waste by-product and its aesthetic properties are well-suited for the mammoth. Other materials, such as coffee and cork were also tested, as well as mushroom mycelium. Prototypes were built by sculpting plasticine from which a silicone mould was created. The skeleton was 3D printed in PLA, a material that is biodegradable in industrial composting.

Your entry’s specification

The woolly mammoth toy weighs 500grams and is 10cm W x 24cm L x 18xm H. The augmented reality app can be shown in a video or through an iPhone app.