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UConn engineering student provides a Halloween "treat" through custom-built piano (Released: 10/26/99)

by David Bauman, Office of University Communications

STORRS, Conn. -- A UConn engineering student has built a custom-designed teaching piano for a nine year old girl who is challenged physically and cognitively, and is scheduled to present the "treat" to her on Friday October 29th at 10:30 a.m. at the ACES Village School in North Haven, Conn.

Jeremy Shattuck, a 22-year-old senior from Andover, spent a year building the piano - a highly sophisticated learning tool with music and a head that pops out from inside the instrument and speaks - as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) program that enables student engineers at universities throughout the United States to construct devices for persons with disabilities.

The piano is for Bianca Brown, a playful, vivacious student at Village School, who uses a wheel-chair for mobility. Village School is one of several special needs schools operated by ACES (Area Cooperative Educational Services) across South Central Connecticut.

The origins for this novel student-to-student gift giving are found in a marriage of needs.

On the one hand, disability ranks as America's greatest health problem in terms of the number of individuals affected. Devices to aid disabled persons often need customized modifications, or are too expensive or nonexistent. Thus most disabled individuals do not benefit from the advances of current

technologies as the engineering and production costs to make custom modifications of many devices are beyond the reach of most people.

Meanwhile, a part of the accreditation process for university engineering programs requires that students complete a number of design credits in their course of study - typically in their senior year. Often called the capstone course, it brings together all the concepts and principles previously learned which the student applies to complete a specific project.

Seeing an opportunity to service the nation's disabled population while engineering students completed their capstone courses, the NSF in 1988 launched the Bioengineering and Research to Aid the Disabled (BRAD) program. The program competitively awards grants to universities that pay for supplies, equipment and fabrication costs of senior design projects that improve the quality of the lives of disabled individuals.

The BRAD program has been a major hit and today involves students from more than 20 universities either modifying existing devices or building unique one-of-a-kind projects that would be prohibitively expensive for a person were it not for the student engineer and the NSF program.

Last fall UConn's department of Electrical & Systems Engineering received a five-year grant from BRAD to pay for 25 projects each year over the five years. Shattuck's specialized piano is among the first year's group of projects. Some of the other projects included a unique plumbing fixture that adjusts shower water temperature for multiple individuals in a group-home setting, a recumbent-style tricycle that allows the rider with an inner ear disorder to propel the vehicle with both a moveable handlebar and foot pedals, and a child-sized green remote operable train retro-fitted to allow joystick steering for a child with limited muscle control.

Shattuck's teaching piano is an electronic learning device that combines the use of flash cards and attention maintaining features such as musical themes and a talking Winnie-the-Pooh Tigger head to help teach a child number sequencing, alphabet sequencing, days of the week, word-picture association, and more.

The piano has a display area where the teacher can place five large easy-to-see flash cards in front of corresponding 3.5" piano keys to cater to the physically challenged child.

For each piano key, there is a corresponding button on the back of the piano for the teacher to program the order in which the keys should be played. So, for example, the teacher could place five flash cards with the numbers one through five in any order across the display area and program the order the keys are to be played from the back of the piano. When the child attempts to press the piano keys in the correct order, a correct answer will result in Tigger popping out of the piano top, speaking an affirmative "that's correct," and the child moves on to the next key.

If the child answers incorrectly, Tigger pops out again saying "try again," and the child will have to try again before moving on to the next number sequence. If the entire sequence is entered correctly, Tigger pops out saying "that's right" to applause.

The piano is designed to improve Bianca's mental capabilities but is simple enough to use to accommodate her physical disability. It also should be fun for her to use, keep her attention, and give her teachers an opportunity to teach a broad range of subjects.

Shattuck spent only about $120 for the push buttons, wiring, programmable chip, voice chips and speakers, a mechanical Tigger head, 4" x 4" flash cards and batteries that make up the 20- inch long, 10-inch high teaching piano.