Interactive Light Studio Stimulates Learning

Designed for Special Hearing Impaired Children

By Alaina G. Levine

The ASME Student Section of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York was looking to do a project that would give their members the opportunity to acquire valuable skills and contribute to the educational growth of their community. It didn’t have to look too far: There was a need just blocks from campus in the heart of the Big Apple.

The American Sign Language and English Lower School (Public School or PS 347) has a unique student population comprised of deaf, hearing impaired, and children of deaf adults, as well as hearing students. Melody Baglione, Cooper Union professor of ME and ASME’s faculty advisor, suggested the Student Section partner with the school to engineer a learning system that focused on giving the kids the chance to experience light and sound in innovative ways.

Supported by two ASME Diversity Action Grants (DAG), Cooper Union students designed and installed an educational play space which they named the Interactive Light Studio. The studio consists of student-designed electronic circuits, a digital projection system and giant interactive screen. Children can manipulate the circuits using their hands or voices and see the circuits’ LED lights respond to their inputs. Images are projected on a screen, such as colorful shapes and swimming fish, which respond to the student’s movement or to music and other sounds. As the kids move or make sounds in the studio, the visual elements respond, serving as the basis for various learning exercises.

The team had very specific goals for the project, says Baglione. “We wanted to teach children about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), stimulate their senses and encourage them to learn more,” she notes. “We also wanted to create technologies that enable deaf students to experience sound visually.” And she and the ASME Student Section had one other rather important objective: to contribute to society through engineering and serve as role models for the kids.

The experience proved particularly priceless for the ME students who took part. They mastered teamwork and communications abilities, in part by writing and executing their own original curriculum to accompany the Studio, juggling multiple budgets and interacting with the teachers at the school. They also gained a deep “understanding of the importance of engineering in society,” says Baglione. On the technical side, they learned quite a bit about using Xbox Kinect as a sensor and computer programming in the C++-based OpenFrameworks language, a highly coveted skill that is applicable to many industries.

But the project also demonstrated to the Cooper Union students that “mechanical engineers need to be multidisciplinary,” notes Baglione. The installation required a knowledge of electrical engineering, and students gained expertise in myriad arenas, including systems integration, circuit design, programming in multiple languages on multiple platforms, and software and hardware interfaces. In addition, the pupils acquired experience in developing a product that was customized to a client’s unique specifications. In this case, as the end user was a bunch of rambunctious children, “the solutions the students designed had to be robust,” notes Baglione with a laugh.

One of the surprise benefits of the installation was that it served as a kind of occupational therapy for many of the children who had physical disabilities. One of the Studio’s programs was a Virtual Fish Tank. Fish were projected on the walls of the room and as the kids reached for the fish, the fish would move away; if they remained still, the fish lingered. Baglione noted that children with physical disabilities especially gained value from the experience, because the Studio “encouraged reaching and grasping, which helped the kids hone their fine and gross motor skills.”

The Interactive Light Studio was created with the future in mind, says Baglione. “It’s important that our students graduate with an understanding that they must be involved socially and interact with their communities through their skill sets,” she stresses. “They must understand that engineering can have a positive impact on people’s lives. The ASME DAG made all this possible, and more.”

Read more about one early-career engineers’ perspective involved in the project in an upcoming engineer profile with Caitlin (Katie) Correll.

Diversity Action Grant Applications may be submitted from the Beginning of the Fall Semester until the Deadline of November 1st.