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Art, science merge in STEAM tech project

A workshop aimed to create technology for those with communication disabilities

About 20 students worked to design assistive technologies for people with communication disabilities during the “Speak Your Mind” workshop Thursday night in List 110. The event was hosted by STEAM, a student group formed last academic year that seeks to merge art with traditional STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The workshop was led by Dan Bacher, a senior research and development engineer on the BrainGate research team and the executive director of the Speak Your Mind Foundation, a nonprofit organization intended “to create assistive technologies for those with communication limitations due to neurological disease or injury,” he said.

Bacher first presented the profiles of four Speak Your Mind clients. He then divided the participants into four groups and asked them to come up with technologies that would meet the clients’ needs. Bacher ensured there were people with different interests in each group, mixing people who study computer science with those who focus more on art.

The participants expressed interest in designing technologies that would allow their clients to overcome their communication impairments. They considered the advantages and disadvantages of the technologies by putting themselves into their clients’ shoes. The groups intended to create something not only theoretically functional but also applicable to everyday life.

One of the clients, Cathy, was paralyzed and could only move her head. She communicated by using a device that enabled her to select words on a computer screen by moving her head. But the interface sometimes malfunctioned and could make her dizzy. One group of students participating in the workshop worked to improve the design of Cathy’s interface, re-imagining its structure and layout.

One of the participants, Julieta Cardenas ’14, a history of art and architecture concentrator, said she enjoyed the workshop.

“I came because I’m interested in integrating haptic technology into art galleries,” she said, adding that she would like to make art and gallery spaces that react to and record peoples’ touch.

Another workshop participant, Eshe Hawash ’17, an engineering concentrator, said that she attended because she wants to develop a more interdisciplinary manner of thinking by integrating art and STEM.

STEAM’s purpose is to enable students to approach science in a more interdisciplinary manner, said Hanna McPhee ’14, STEAM’s co-president.

STEAM originated at RISD as an art advocacy movement. McPhee and other group leaders learned of the RISD group and decided to bring it to Brown last year, where it became “a student initiative under the umbrella of the Creative Mind Initiative and the Brown Science Center that focused on combining art and STEM through workshops, lectures and field trips,” McPhee said.

Michelle Site ’14, the group’s other co-president said, “STEAM’s purpose is to bridge the gap between different concentrations by providing discussion groups for those with different interests, as well as networks to professors and professionals of different fields.”

McPhee and Gabe Filsinger ’14, the group’s co-vice president, both said the group’s goal for the future is to create a STEAM toolkit that will serve as an educational platform enabling others to apply interdisciplinary approaches to teaching in classrooms across the country.


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