Students and Smithsonian Work Together to Improve Access

Thanks to the work of a team of undergraduate students over the summer, officials at the Smithsonian Institution have a number of new ideas to ensure that everyone can feel the full power of their exhibits.

“Think of an exhibit on the civil rights movement with music; so think about it, ”said Katherine Schilling, chemical and environmental engineering researcher. “This powerful emotion is what the students wanted to make available to every visitor. “

The team of Alice Huang ’22, Josh Vogel ’22, Michelle Tong ’21, Melanie King ’23, Sebastian Bruno ’22 and Veronica Chen ’22 were among the 2020 SEAS Summer Design / Research Fellows, a program designed to mitigate the loss of internship, research and study opportunities that many students have experienced over the summer. The team was led by Schilling, who is also an associate research fellow in conservation at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) on the west campus of Yale.

Roger Brissenden, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for Science, noted that the institution is just beginning to reopen a number of its museum and exhibition spaces – a process that is re-thinking accessibility to engage a range of visitors. as wide as possible.

“What excites me about this project is that it’s about six incredibly talented undergraduates who mobilized their design and engineering talents to tackle some of the most delicate challenges facing museums today. Said Brissenden, who oversees science museums and science research centers as well as the Smithsonian libraries and archives. “Accessibility is an incredibly high priority for the Smithsonian right now, especially as we enter a new normal post-COVID period.”

One of the student teams worked on the exhibition “The Moving World: 250,000 Years of Human Migration,” which features an interactive token-based system representing global human migration and its motivations. In its current form, the exhibit is primarily visual, so the team created a way to help blind and visually impaired customers participate.

As part of the exhibit, visitors tell where their family came from and why they moved to where they are now. Visitors insert a chip of a particular color (there are seven colors in total, each corresponding to one of the seven regions of the world) into one of the seven transparent tubes. As the chips accumulate in the tubes, the visual effect is similar to a bar graph, giving an overall picture of the family migrations of visitors.

The students designed the chips with different textures and installed sensors to sort the chips by color. They also added a raised ridge to system components, such as its audio buttons, to help users navigate the system. Because everyone was working remotely, Veronica Chen and Sebastian Bruno each created a prototype of their home from cardboard and other materials made available to them.

A second team of students worked on ways for customers who are deaf or hard of hearing to experience the emotion of music and sound that are often essential in museum exhibits. For this, they were inspired by the work of filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, known for his abstract musical animations. In the student plan, users would stand in front of a Kinect, a motion sensor, to create musical and visual pieces. Visitors would also hold a touchpad that simulates heartbeats of different tempos, each corresponding to a different emotion.

Both projects received praise from Smithsonian officials.

“The energy and creativity, problem solving, intelligence and passion that you brought to these two challenges that we gave you were really inspiring, and that also gave us an extra boost during this time. difficult for everyone. “said Susan Ades, Smithsonian Exhibitions Director.” Our team, working on ‘World on the Move’ and other sound-based experiments, will be very happy to take some of your ideas and put them into action. . “

Jeffrey Brock, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science, noted that the project was an example of people at SEAS making the most of a tough time.

“You are all a tribute to SEAS and this program is a great opportunity,” he said. “I’m so glad we were able to turn a ‘forgotten summer’ into something really productive for everyone.”

Ivan Selin ’56, who was the founding chairman of the Smithsonian board, as well as a strong supporter of Yale’s efforts, praised the student presentations. Even more impressive than the solutions, he said, was the students’ ability to confidently explain their work to a large audience – including non-engineers – even as they spoke from a distance on Zoom.

“That’s why CEID was created 10 years ago – to bring engineers and non-engineers together and get them to talk and understand each other,” he said. “It’s a big part of the Yale experience, and you’ve gone further than ever in bringing this integration of engineering, design and technology together. Years from now you will forget the technical details, but you will still remember the experience of engaging a general audience.

One of the students involved, Alice Huang, said she initially planned to spend her summer in an internship related to her biomedical engineering major until the pandemic shut down most of the programs she applied for. She then turned to the Summer Design / Research Scholars.

“Building our prototypes from scratch allowed us to immerse ourselves in the problem space and bring to life our vision of a potential solution to increase accessibility in museums,” she said. “I also really enjoyed meeting and collaborating with the great professionals who made our project possible. I’m grateful that we had the opportunity to get to know them, exchange our (crazy?) Ideas with them, and learn a lot from them in the process of creating our end products.

Josh Vogel said the program was “all I wanted when I needed it most” after his original summer plans were canceled.

“I think the most rewarding part of the whole scholarship has been working on a project every day,” he said. “This was my first professional experience in engineering and it was an intense validation to see how much I enjoy working in this field. It also inspired me to keep moving forward in school because I know how much I will love what awaits me on the other side.

The collaboration is an example of a larger partnership between Yale and Smithsonian that was initiated in 2016 as a way to leverage the complementary strengths of institutions and to incubate innovative research and collaboration between institutions. The Smithsonian has also worked with SEAS on previous projects. In 2017, the Making Spaces course took students to work with Smithsonian officials on ways to incorporate technology into the renovation of the Smithsonian Arts & Industries building.

About Stefany Edmondson

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