21 September 2011

Sharing the light: photonics and vision

Nicolaus Copernicus students explore optical fibers with kindergarten students as part of an SPIE Student Chapter outreach project.

Members of the SPIE Student Chapter at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland went to a kindergarten to teach about physics, and came away with a powerful, life-changing idea for helping children with vision problems.

Chapter member Danuta Bukowska tells the story:

Like many other people with healthy vision, we had remained unaware of how difficult the lives of partially sighted people may be until we visited the Jan Brzechwa Kindergarten.

One intention was to demonstrate special experiments in physics to the children. In the process, we saw how much work and practice on their part is essential for the partially sighted children among the class to cope in society.

Deeply moved by this experience, we decided to take advantage of the resourcefulness and skills of young people who could put together an educational set of toys that would facilitate the process of learning for partially blind children.

The idea was to complete a cheap set of optical toys for visual stimulation and teaching aids that can be used in preschools and schools.

The objective was to draw attention to problems faced by partially blind children, e.g., lack of simple and inexpensive devices to stimulate visual concentration through the change of light intensity of color. That is important to rehabilitation, as it teaches perceptiveness, concentration and visual and physical coordination.

We held a national contest under the title “The Art of Seeing,” to design optical tools supporting education and development for partially sighted children. The competition was open to all, but aimed particularly at students and graduates of science, technology and design.

We placed all the important information on a website. We had succeeded in collecting abundant data about kindergartens for partially sighted children from all over Poland, as well as a rich source of books and materials which would be of help to the contestants while working on their projects. In the process, we learned how high the demand is for these materials.

We received 43 projects of toys from all over the country, from students of physics, engineering and even the arts. Each project team had to learn something more about the effects of light. The projects were very professional, and we were able to donate the toys to kindergartens.

And the project showed, once again,  that optics is beautiful, true, and very much involved in helping those most in need.

The first prize went to Adrian Kępka, Michał Mateusz Pełka and Jan Andrzej Szczepanek, students of Warsaw University of Technology and members of Warsaw University of Technology SPIE Student Chapter. They had constructed a toy called ColorMEMO. The toy is an electronic version of a MEMO-type game whose objective is to arrange finite elements into pairs according to color and sound.

When designing the toy, the students bore in mind the notion that there is compensation between the senses. In their project they emphasized the compensation for sight via the sense of touch: they used different types of texture on the bright elements of the toy’s surface, as opposed to the dark ones. As a result, there is correlation between the light effects (visual experience) and the texture of the surface (experience by means of touch).

The second prize went to Artur Borkowski, Łukasz Huchel and Maksymilian Klimontowicz, students of the Silesian University and the creators of a Happy Flower toy. Happy Flower is an electronic toy whose objective is to throw a ball through random highlighted halls. When a child hits the target, a song plays as an award. The toy emphasizes the compensation for sight via the sense of sound.

Nikodem Szpunar and Kamila Niedźwiedzka, who created a toy called the Magic Table, won the third prize. This lovely-looking and well-constructed wooden toy consists of a set of paper boards, wooden pawns, a handle, and magnets.

The toy has visual and kinetic aspects. It teaches children observation and co-ordination, as well as spatial awareness. By use of mobile elements, the toy stimulates sight and an ability to follow an object with one’s eyes. The magnets, which may be perceived by children as magical and mysterious, develop curiosity: an essential part of a child’s development. Each board is themed and it works on a child’s imagination.

And how does it work? Under the Magic Table there is a handle with a magnet which attracts a pawn that moves on the surface of the table. In this way the pawns are moved with the handle.

Well done — our congratulations to all!

Clockwise from lower left, Nicolaus Copernicus University SPIE Student Chapter members show projects from the contest: Szymon with “Happy Flower,” Karolina with “Kropek,” Karol with “Nothing :),” Danuta with “Magic Table,” Ewa with “Color Memo,” and Marta with “Orange Tree.”

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