Senior Builds Career Designing Interactive Science Exhibits

Alex Averill always thought he would pursue a computer science job someday, but his design work with the Science and Engineering Education Center (SEEC) at UT Dallas shifted his career path toward a more specialized niche.

Alex Averill with one of his exhibits at the SEEC lab

Alex Averill's work with the Science and Engineering Education Center at UT Dallas led to a career designing science exhibits.

Averill discovered a passion for designing and developing interactive science exhibits that the SEEC loans to area libraries and other public places. This spring, he landed a part-time internship doing similar work as a museum technician at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas.

“I’m using both my software and fabrication building skills. The SEEC gave me ideas on what I could do and what’s out there,” Averill said.

Averill graduates this month with a bachelor’s degree in software engineering from the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, and has accepted a full-time job developing interactive exhibit software for Ideum, a New Mexico-based company that produces multi-touch tables and walls, custom interactive exhibits, and custom hardware for museums and other spaces.

Averill’s exhibit design work will let him combine his passions for technical problem-solving and sparking children’s interest in science.

“It’s a mix of seeing the educational impact and being able to build something that’s unique and immediately interactive,” Averill said. “It’s really cool to see the children’s interest in science grow.” 

At UT Dallas, his engineering mindset and technical background was already an asset to the SEEC. He expanded his role by picking up the needed skills in woodworking and mechanics so that he could fabricate exhibits himself.

It’s a mix of seeing the educational impact and being able to build something that’s unique and immediately interactive. It’s really cool to see the children’s interest in science grow.

Alex Averill
software engineering senior

SEEC’s table-based exhibits have to stand up to heavy use, said Dr. Lani Connolly, director of the SEEC.

“The exhibits have to be robust, yet cost-effective. We use a modular design so that only the exhibit top changes out. It’s a very efficient exhibit that lets libraries do rotations every three months,” Connolly said.

Averill has helped develop exhibits such as “Bacteria and Viruses,” “Creepy Crawly” on insects, “Hair Raising Experience” on the biology of hair and “Raspberry Pi Computer Programming,” a single board computer that gives children an introduction to programming.

Averill also helped maintain the SEEC’s educational science exhibits that were built by the Science Museum of Minnesota, some of which are also used at the Perot Museum.

He also helped faculty with outreach projects for grant reports.

Dr. Fabiano Rodrigues, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and in the William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences, a research center in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, tapped Averill’s expertise to develop an exhibit that would help explain the center’s research and how it impacts the public.

Averill built an exhibit focusing on the center’s research in the Earth’s ionosphere, a dynamic region of the upper atmosphere where radio signals can be reflected or scattered. A better understanding of the ionosphere can help researchers to more accurately forecast space weather and improve GPS navigation and radio communications.

His exhibit allows a user to send a signal from a laser to a mirror, simulating how the ionosphere reflects communication signals and extends them to a receiver.

“I’m really impressed by Alex’s work. You give him an idea and he comes up with how to implement it and even ways to optimize it. Alex is a big asset for the SEEC and outreach projects being developed at UT Dallas,” Rodrigues said.

Averill also developed metrics that show when an exhibit has been turned on, how long it’s been used and the frequency of use. The metrics provide libraries with information on which exhibits are attracting attention, the best locations for exhibits in each venue, and periods of heavy usage. They also give faculty helpful statistics for their grant reports.

“You can couple the metrics and demographics to get pretty robust information on what holds attention. The metrics help us know who’s using the exhibits, and how often,” Averill said.

Averill’s work at the SEEC will be invaluable for his career path, Connolly said. His hands-on experience in designing and building exhibits not only helped SEEC better fulfill its mission, it also helped Averill build a strong resume. Together, they researched potential museum careers as they expanded Averill’s role with the SEEC.

“The museum technician is a very specialized niche. It’s kind of a hybrid role, helping library patrons move from traditional books to a more technical, STEM-based literacy using mostly touch-screen exhibits,” Connolly said.

“Alex’s real-world experience working with actual design parameters helps him graduate with these skills in hand,” Connolly said. “If that weren’t the case, he wouldn’t have been hired. He walked in with a loaded resume.”

Averill agreed.

“My experience made the interviews a lot easier because I could give them a lot of real-life examples of how I solved problems for both faculty and students,” he said.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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