The Terrarium

The Terrarium

Design Sketch


The concept is teaching children about sustainability in the household by learning good habits: turning off light when it is not in use, conscious of using water and recycling in their day-to-day life. A terrarium is a tool, a product, a miniature, and an abstract representation of the earth that needs care. The terrarium is intended to create a bridge between parents and children toward the consistent practice of sustainability.

Nowadays, schools are teaching children about sustainability and how it was important to the earth we live in, why everyone needs to be accountable for the action they take; and what action they do to create a better future. Every action has consequences, and it’s all matters to the environment. The ultimate goal of this project is to help build good habits, develop responsibility, and express their connection to their world through everyday actions.

Intended Experience

With the learning children had about sustainability in the school, it would be good to take further action in their everyday life at home. A monitory system would analyze user behavior and remind them to add water to the terrarium if they made a good habit (behavior) in a day. If the analysis result is bad, the system will remind the user with a buzzer sound and releasing the smoke. The “digital sensations” of the smoke are ideally and intended to catch children’s attention and reminded them about what the consequence might happen to the terrarium (earth). Here, smoke is an abstract representation of bad habit (behavior), which could destroy the terrarium if it didn’t add the water. It would also help to develop their responsibility to look after the terrarium and make sure the plant is growing healthy.

Problem Space

We want to focus on Global Warming and raise children's awareness about sustainability and environmental protection within our team's chosen domain. This is an ongoing subject that has been trying to address in education. We think it was a good topic that we could explore and make learning fun and playful.

The scope I chose was to focus on raise awareness of children's understanding, skills, and sustainability at home. Energy and water are things that we couldn't live without in our lives, but we can easily take advantage of it. Recycling, on the other hand, is a way to help the earth to reduce carbon footprints if we did it correctly. Many studies have pointed out that teaching children about gardening could help them to learn about the environment and social aspects of sustainability. This terrarium is a tool and a plant to help parents to teach their children about the importance of sustainability in a more interesting and authentic experience.


The aim of this class is “Designing for playful and open-ended interactions in everyday life: human values in physical computing.”

At the early stage of our design process, we chose the topic on how to make digital sensations physical, which meant incorporating all senses and bringing digital sensations to the physical senses.


First Prototype
First Prototype

The initial team concept was making an interactive globe in a classroom setting. Due to the recent situation, our team ended up working individually. I decided to shift the global to a terrarium with a specific focus on smoke-based interaction

First Prototype

At the beginning of the project, the interaction with the terrarium was manually control by spraying the water and turned on the rocker switch. The lack of digital interaction between the terrarium and the users have been suggested in the user feedback. Moreover, turning on the smoke might be dangerous to the children, and the smoke's location was not clearly defined.

Second Prototype

I modified the design by adding a pressed button to control the water system, which means the water can be added when the users pressed the button. The smoke will automatically be turned on when the user didn’t add the water within a specific time frame, and a buzzer will ring to remind the users.

The feedback I received was that instead of manually adding the water and turning on the smoke, it would be more practical using a system to control the water automatically. Yet with the thought of having interaction with children, I still used a button and a countdown timer to trigger the smoke when the action was not made. Considering the danger that might come with the smoke machine, using the auto-trigger would be safer and better. I figured that instead of creating a button to reset the timer when water is added, why not connect that function with a water button together? It would minimize the work and became more accessible to its users this way.

Lastly, the amount of how much water should be added varied between when parents provide supportive guidance to assist children and what the terrarium actually needs to prevent a smoke. The feedback I got was that it was hard to measure the amount considering that parents would give extra time to look after their children.

Background Research
The research suggested that teaching children about sustainability in their early education program would most likely have positive effects on developing their attitudes and forming behaviors; also, social behavior, responsibility, and health (Borg et al., 2017). Even though primary school teaches children about the general knowledge, the actions, values, and attitudes also need to be picked-up at home to transform what the children have learned into practice effectively (Grodziéska-Jurczak et al., 2006). The study also states that parents’ behaviors and beliefs could influence children’s (Borg et al., 2017). It is crucial to ensure that children participate and have the opportunity to do hands-on activities at home and preschool with parents and teachers (Borg et al., 2017). A journal is done throughout the project. Click here to check out my progression!

Grodziéska-Jurczak, M., Stepska, A., Nieszporek, K., & Bryda, G. (2006). Perception of Environmental Problems Among Pre-school Children in Poland. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 15(1), 62–76.
Borg, F., Winberg, M., & Vinterek, M. (2017). Children’s Learning for a Sustainable Society: Influences from Home and Preschool. Education Inquiry, 8(2), 151–172.

Technical Details

An Arduino Mega s5600 is in control of the watering function by using a press button to control the servo. When water is added, a timer is reset at the same time. On the contrary, if the water is not added before the timer has reached 0, a smoke machine and buzzer sound will be turned on. A Countdown timer LCD Keypad shield is used to show the time, and a two-channel relay is used to turn on/off the smoke machine.


The Terrarium was built with materials that I could find at home, such as a good size glass bottle that used to be filled with Chinese medicine from my landlord, soil from the garden, and rocks from the park near the house. The plants were changed at the last stage because the shop was open.

Terrarium Concept Terrarium Material Terrarium Plant Terrarium Process Terrarium Terrarium Process
Water Water Water Water Water Water


The water system was built by creating a funnel using a soda bottle as the container. I made a hole on the cap to connect the airline tube for transporting water to the terrarium. The airline tube was tied on the SG90 servo to control the amount of air that went into the tube to make the water flow, similar to a drip-feeding.

Smoke machine

The smoke machine was built from a disassembled broken hairdryer with the addition of some nichrome wires and hooked-up wires. Regular makeup cottons were put between the nichrome wires, and glycerol was added to create the smoke when the wire was heated. The frame was built from paddle sticks with hot glues.

Smoke Machine Smoke Machine Fan Smoke Machine Smoke Machine Smoke Machine


The 'Actual' v.s The 'Ideal'

Due to the COVID-19, and the time and resources constraints that result from changing the course completely. We originally designed to have a team of 4 and planned to one project together. Yet, it changed into an individual project. I had to narrow it down the scope to ensure I could focus on the interaction and the smoke effect experience. With more time, I would like to explore and adding more functions one by one to make the product more complete.

The terrarium is a plant that helps parents and children to learn about sustainability at home. It needs care by adding water only when good habits had done. The smoke effect is a presentation of bad habits that could impact the environment. The current prototype will only alert the users if they haven’t done any good habit with a period. The interaction with the terrarium was narrow it down to the user only. The ideal terrarium could be monitoring lights, energy usage (temperature), and water consumption to alert users about their behavior. It would be nice if the terrarium could express her emotion to the user. It could create more fun and the noble relationship between the users and the product. Adding these extra functions would bring more interaction and accurate measurement of the behavior change toward sustainability. Lastly, I would like to include more family members and have them engaged with the terrarium.

The biggest challenge for this product was the lack of actual target users, children 6 to 8 years old. Even though I managed to have one kid test it out, it wouldn’t be counted as an overall user experience outcome. I had some classmates to do the user testing but it would be nice to know what kids really think and react. Another challenge was technical issues, which took me longer compared to others. In the end, I managed to learn and gain more skills even though I felt I wasted a lot of time on a few simple problems.

The idea of transferring smoke and adding water changed several times during the design process. The functionality of how water flow and how smoke passes into the terrarium was harder than I imagined. The gap and space between the smoke machine and the terrarium created resistance for the smoke to travel. Even with the amount of wind created from the fan, the smoke needed a longer time than I expected.

Overall, it was hard to say if this product would successfully teach children about sustainability at home and raise awareness on the importance of taking care of their environment. Since this product required parents' involvement, children’s behavior and understanding would be closely associated with their parent’s belief, knowledge, time, and energy.

Nevertheless, this product was successfully created by bringing an idea across as a learning starter for parents and children to learn about sustainability in their everyday life in the household; an open-ended interaction with the terrarium based on the habits the had done. The product did create an interesting experience by using smoke-based interaction as one of the sensations to alert a bad behavior. However, the product failed in-depth user testing and lacked a broader perspective in looking at the relationship of the terrarium, the family, and the household as a whole.