Engineering labs are often portrayed as places available only to people with proper training and education. Even when those spaces are open to the public, experiences are typically limited to supervised demonstrations and aimed at people who are not at the extremes of the sensory spectrum, including the blind and people with the Autism Spectrum Disorder. There is also not much play involved. Therefore for me, the question had become whether laboratory spaces can not only be open but can also expose people to principles of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) through play.
The answer came months later when an idea for an event that would expose children and their parents and caregivers to STEAM. There was only one requirement: every kid, with any sensory needs, should be able to participate in the experiences built for the event. Although the idea could have seemed random, my work had already been focusing on how to leverage technology to improve the communication skills of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and how to provide students with sensory differences (such as those with hearing and visual impairments) with access to STEM. It did not take long to convince therapists, faculty, and researchers, as well as engineering and special education students to join the team. From then on, there were only two things left to do: build the experiences and convince families to come to the labs of the Virginia Modeling Analysis, and Simulation Center (VMASC) on Saturday morning.
The team worked around the clock to develop engaging experiences incorporating STEAM concepts. The focal point of the event was placed in the newly created Simulation Experience and Analytics Lab. In this 7660 sq. ft space, two large projection screens and motion capture systems became part of two interactive experiences. In the first experience, a child could control through his or her movements a virtual object which in turn interacted with blocks on a giant checkered board. Each block had a unique symbol and physical properties, and the task was to put the block into the corresponding place on the board. The task was not as easy as it seemed; the kids had to figure out by trial and error the behavior of each block upon collision. However, there was also a twist. Multiple participants were allowed to participate. They could collaborate and help one another put the block into its spot or simply "sabotage" the others’ efforts and throw the blocks off their course.
The second experience was similar in concept, mixing Technology and Engineering with Art. A state-of-the-art motion capture system tracked everyday objects like chairs and toys. Every interaction with the object and between the objects had an impact on what was happening in the virtual world and was happening a lot. A virtual painting was being created as participants went through the experience.
Although interfacing with the virtual world is almost always engaging, there is sometimes nothing better than simply getting our hands dirty in the physical world. For this purpose, we provided a catapult shooting paintballs at a canvas. "How much force to apply for the paintball to hit the right spot on the canvas" was probably not a question that children had on their mind, but they intuitively learned the cause-effect leading to a perfect shot.
With the event taking place just a few days before November 1, it would not have been possible to have the experience without a Halloween theme. "Stand in front of the camera, press a giant red button embedded in a pumpkin, make a happy, angry, surprised, or neutral face and let artificial intelligence do the rest," were the instructions. After several seconds, a virtual pumpkin with an expression matching that of the participants emerged from a boiling pot and was superimposed on the picture over their head. A 3D printed pumpkin with the corresponding expression was handed to each participant.
All experiences did not fit into one room. The second largest room at VMASC housed robots and more hands-on experiences. Kids found two humanoid, childlike and expressive robots very relatable. Some children mimicked robots' dance moves while some engaged in lengthy conversations with the robots which shows great promise in therapy applications and making social robots.
The event went on for four hours and the answer to my initially stated question became obvious, which can be seen in this video. We need to open laboratory spaces to the public and create this spark that will lead to the next generation of engineers, scientists, and artists.