Sensing Volcanoes Part 2: “Testing…Testing” at the Norwich Science Festival

After a frantic few weeks designing, constructing and coding the Imaginarium, the Sensing Volcanoes team finally made it to the Norwich Science Festival in February half term. For two days, we took over a small corner of The Forum with our gazebo, disco floor and extensive rock collection.


This was the first test of the “Imaginarium” and our new game “The Floor is Magma!” and we were anxious to see how the public would react to our most ambitious engagement project yet!


As ever, set up was slightly chaotic…with one missing gazebo roof, an excessive number of rocks and props, and large plant pots to contend with, the team was dismayed to find we didn’t have time for our relaxing “pat ourselves on the back” breakfast on the first morning. All was forgotten though when the first eager kids and parents started swarming the rocks table.


Anyone who thinks the public think rocks are boring has never run a stand at a science festival!


Whereas the sight of Jonathan (from Output Arts) sitting on the Imaginarium in his high vis making final tweaks to the coding of “game mode” gave some members of the team anxiety, the public were definitely intrigued, and we soon had a crowd of excited children and parents waiting to play. The first game of the day was so popular we had to instigate a sign-up sheet to avoid tears (from children and volunteers!).


The Floor is Magma was a roaring success! Our fears that the topography wasn’t topography-y enough or that the game was too complicated were unfounded. Kids and adults of all ages were able to quickly make connections between valleys and pyroclastic density currents, wind direction and ash fall and soon became motivated to avoid “losses” incurred by hazards: being impacted by a hazard resulted in having to pay a “disaster dollar” penalty to our (progressively more evil as the games went on) banker.


Even better, between games while the “Imaginarium” was in “demo mode” with various hazards lit up and changed at random by one of our team, kids as young as 4 and 5 were observed making their own games, trying to avoid the hazards and deciding where they would want to live. There were even a couple of instances of “Imaginarium story time”, where various members of the team managed to gather small crowds of children who would sit and listen intently to stories about volcanoes, or examine our magma storage region poster to make connections between things they could “sense” and sub-surface signals recorded by instruments.

On day two, our stand became even more obnoxious with the genius addition of sound effects!


Each game was announced by a loud evacuation siren and earthquakes were accompanied by loud rumbling sounds. We had to make use of hazard tape to keep the playing arena clear during games and even had some participation from the crowd, trying to advise players to make “more sensible” choices.


One very lucky player refused to move from his spot right on the crater rim despite escalating activity, by some miracle his square remained relatively unharmed almost all the way through the game – a flaw in our game plan clearly!


Despite desperate pleas from the crowd he stayed put and was mostly rewarded for his risky behaviour…until our final cataclysmic eruption rendered him bankrupt in the last round!

Reflecting on the mostly negative emotions expressed by game players surrounding life on volcanic islands after day 1, the team decided we needed to emphasise the benefits of living on a volcanic island. We wanted to encourage players to think about why they might want to stay in their “home squares”.


The addition of some tranquil calypso music from Montserrat at the start of the game, and discussion of fertile lands, tourism business and cultural significance to our intro chat changed the tenor of some of the answers we got to our “how would you feel if you lived on a volcanic island?” question at the end of each game.


Our first test of the “Imaginarium” was certainly a success, the smiling faces and feedback from staff at the science festival that visitors had loved “the volcano stand” made all the long hours and stressful build-up worth it. As we finally got around to our “pat on the back” coffees at the end of day 2 we felt excited for what we could achieve with the Royal Society exhibit in July.

With the Science Festival over and the “Imaginarium” well and truly tested, we turned our attention to our upcoming trips to Montserrat and St Vincent. These trips would give us the chance to share and engage with our Caribbean Collaborators to ensure that Sensing Volcanoes at the Royal Society is a true celebration of the work, stories and knowledge generated by Caribbean communities and scientists about volcanic eruptions over the last 150 years.


Find out what happened in Part 3 of our sensing volcanoes series:

“Coordination, conversation, collaboration – Adventures in the Caribbean”

…coming soon!