SCP Brings Artists, Scientists, and Engineers Together

December 14, 2017 / By: Dr. Peter Gittins, SCP Engaged Scholar

Each year, seniors in the Engineering Senior Design Clinic at the University of St. Thomas develop prototype solutions to real world problems. Working with local industry or non-profits, projects span two semesters and culminate with a design show and working prototype that represents real value to project partners. St. Thomas students are motivated not only by purely engineering problems; they also strive to solve meaningful problems that embrace the University's mission of advancing the Common Good. That’s where the collaboration with the Sustainable Communities Partnership (SCP) in the Office of Sustainability Initiatives comes in. As part of SCP’s new sustainability and art initiative, one group of senior design students is working on SCP’s first sustainability public art course collaboration—The AirBooth.

The AirBooth is a project of a local non-profit, The Gymnasium, focused on engaging people with global air quality. The project combines Art and Science in a data visceralization project that communicates air quality data on an emotional level through images and sound. This project asks the question "What if you had a direct emotional response to air quality?" The answer to that question is a phone-booth sized interactive sculpture paired with an online visualization:  the AirBooth. The AirBooth flips the traditional method of communicating scientific data on its head. Instead of focusing on presenting data to support a call to action, the AirBooth uses emotion to draw people in, providing the incentive to look at the issue more closely, and eventually dig into the data. As a sculpture, the AirBooth is a platform/stimulus for discussion, engagement, and connectedness with the global landscape.

Original AirBooth Prototype by the Gymnasium

The initial AirBooth project was funded by the McKnight Foundation and was exhibited as a proof of concept installation in the Cynthia Binger Boynton Gallery in Minneapolis. This first generation AirBooth relied on sound produced through speakers, but the core concept was to produce sound directly by the movement of air—like a wind instrument. At this point the Gymnasium found they lacked the resources to make their vision a reality.

This is where SCP came in.  Maria Dahmus, SCP Program Director and Assistant Director of the Office of Sustainability Initiatives explains the collaboration, “SCP seeks to collaborate on projects where students can apply what they’re learning in class to solve real-world problems and explore innovative solutions that foster interconnected human and environmental well-being.  SCP primarily partners with cities and government entities on their sustainability goals, integrating city projects into existing courses across disciplines to enrich students’ applied learning.  We’d also like to foster broader engagement and interaction around sustainability.  To do this, SCP is launching a new initiative to link courses with sustainability public art endeavors that engage people with the environment in novel ways—through art and science.  Our first public art collaboration is with the Gymnasium’s AirBooth and the Engineering Senior Design Clinic.”

The engineering students are taking on the challenge of building AirBooth as it was originally envisioned, making sound using air itself. They explored several different methods of producing sound, taking inspiration from saxophones, flutes, and pipe organs. They settled on a street organ type design after making contact with a European organ maker through a Youtube video. Then came the challenge of generating airflow, and controlling the sound. After investigating fans, pumps, and bellows, then running the numbers to calculate the required airflow and pressure, they determined that a bellows system powered by a hand crank would be best. This would allow anyone aged 5-95 to power the AirBooth—they ran the numbers for that too! A series of valves on the pipe organ component will be controlled by a musical MIDI file that is processed by an Arduino microcontroller board. This will all interface with the AirBooth.net website to produce music based on the air quality in a chosen city. The worse the air quality the more ominous the music.

Senior Engineering Design Team with AirBooth prototype that can produce sound using air itself

What makes the AirBooth project different is the intersection between Science, Art, and Engineering:  students and practitioners from each of these disciplines working together to address a problem that affects us all. Art can communicate and connect on an emotional level, something that scientists and engineers may fail to do. And that’s not something that gets taught in the traditional classroom setting. Students in the sciences learn valuable skills like how to run experiments, collect data, and present their findings to other scientists. Engineers learn the design process and how to take a concept through to realization. Bringing artists into the mix gives students a unique opportunity to practice communicating their ideas in a different way, and the students working on the AirBooth project seem to love the challenge. Senior design student Taylor Lewis says, “The idea behind the project is different from anything that I have ever worked on, but the same engineering rigor was required and put forth in developing a solution to improve the existing AirBooth.” The artistic aspect of the project was, however, a new thing. Taylor adds, “The aesthetic appeal was not something I have ever had to accomplish in a previous project, but am enjoying the challenge that comes along with this effort.”

Taylor explains what makes the project so valuable to her, “The best thing about the opportunity is I feel like I am not just working on a school project that will be completely forgotten in 6 months.” Taylor sums this up, “There will be a positive impact on anyone who interacts with the AirBooth and that interaction is something that will continue for more than just the couple minutes the user is interacting with the booth.” What Taylor and the rest of the AirBooth team value most in this project is the chance to build something that has importance beyond the classroom.  A chance to use the engineering skills they and her team have developed in the past four years to build something that will influence the way people think about our relationship with the environment—a real chance to work for the Common Good.