High Schoolers Use Arduino Kits to Design Safer Railroad Crossing Systems in Westchester, NY

 

The Digital Arts Experience held its first ever Design Challenge on Saturday, December 3rd. The challenge focused on rail safety, more specifically, developing safer systems for rail crossings. Given the increasing number of train accidents and in the light of the recent bills signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to require the state to study rail crossings and assess their safety, we felt that High School students would be the ideal candidates to innovate and improve the dated and ineffective technology that is currently being utilized.

The teams were provided Arduino Uno boards, which are inexpensive microprocessors, and simple buttons, switches, LEDs, motors, and sensors to create their systems. Teams from Putnam Valley High School, Mamaroneck High School, and Mt. Vernon High School registered to face this challenge. The teams had approximately five hours to design, build, and test their systems, and everyone at The DAE as well as the judges were absolutely blown away by what the teams created.

_mg_3743The students from Putnam Valley High School created a self-aware system with sensors and volumetric cameras that could assess a car or any other object on a track (i.e. a fallen tree, power line, etc.) and notify the train operator and MTA control room. What’s more is their design had multiple levels of redundancy that took human error out of the equation. For example, if the system detected a car on the tracks, the train operator, and MTA control would be notified. If the train started to approach the zone in which it could safely stop before colliding with the obstruction and the train operator did not start to slow down, the system would slow down the train automatically. This system was thoughtfully designed and excellently executed. Using the simple technology provided, they demonstrated exactly how their system would detect, communicate, and intervene when needed. It had layers of systems that constantly checked on each other to ensure that no matter what, an impact will be avoided.

_mg_3690The team from Mamaroneck High School introduced several innovative ideas with their design. To start, their design employed a super bright LED strip right before the crossing that would change colors from green to yellow to red as a train approached the crossing. This is a simple yet effective system because it is a universal system for drivers, rather than abstract signs and lights that are currently used. Their system also had an array of video cameras viewing the track from all sides so the train operator can view the crossing well before the train arrives there. In addition, their design used a system of lasers to detect if an obstruction was on the tracks. The lasers would detect when a car enters and exits a crossing, and whether the car is stuck on the tracks. In the case that a car is stuck on the tracks, the system will alert the train operator and MTA control. If the train is approaching and the obstruction hasn’t moved, their design incorporated a conveyor system that would physically move the car off the tracks.

_mg_3755The Mount Vernon team was just a single High School student due to a few no-shows on his team. What’s more is that the student did not have any prior experience with Arduino or electronics, yet he took on the challenge head on. His design incorporated simple ideas with tremendous effect. Firstly, his design incorporated extremely bright LEDs to light and indicate a crossing. Currently, crossings are not lit with any special lighting, they simply have the crossbucks sign. He also included a counter that would count down the time until a train arrived at the crossing. Finally, he included a pressure sensor that would alert the driver if there is a car on the tracks.

The judges were struck by the richness of the ideas and the degree to which the teens could implement them with the limited technology that we provided. Considering that they completed these designs in approximately 5 hours is a staggering achievement. In the end, the team from Putnam Valley High School took home the $500 prize, but each team left with prizes and a sense of fulfillment for not only completing this challenge but for creating designs that could potentially save lives.

The beauty of having high school students design these systems is that they have no preconceived notions of business, money, or government. They simply want to solve the problem. Each team showed incredible intelligence, focus, determination, and innovation and all of us at The DAE know that they are going to go on to do incredible things.  

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Rob Kissner (The DAE’s President & CEO) & Alan Brody (Founder of StartupPalooza) with the winning team.

 

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Emphasis on the ‘Experience’ of Connected Learning

A Day in the Life of an Audio Production student at The Digital Arts Experience.

by Emily Angell, audio engineer and instructor at The DAE – August 30th, 2012

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Emily Angell demos recording with Rob Kissner, at The Digital Arts Experience

The concept of connected learning implies that a student grows through being an active participant in his or her learning experience, instead of just a recipient of information.  It also implies that the burden of teaching lies with an interconnected network of people surrounding the student, instead of his or her teacher alone.  One of the goals of Digital Arts Experience (nice name guys!) is to implement this process. Picture this scenario:

My student (we’ll call him Joe Shmo) comes to me with a project in mind.  He is a junior who wants to create a guitar recording to help him get into a Jazz Studies program in college.  We begin the class with the basics, and I show my students (there are never more than six) a PowerPoint presentation (with several YouTube clips embedded) about the recording process.  I give them a quick tutorial of how to make a home demo using Garage Band, and have them do a one-minute group project using the technique.

Meanwhile, Joe must make a decision on what to record.  He must practice.  When he goes home he plays a couple of songs for his mother, who gives him helpful feedback on his timing.  Then he does a quick recording of the songs he’s chosen, uploads them to SoundCloud, and posts them to Facebook.  He asks his friends and family to vote on the selection they think is best.  His uncle sends him a helpful article on a finger-picking technique that would work better in the B section of the first song.  After receiving the feedback, he’s decided which tune he will record, and returns to us to make it happen.

Here at The DAE, he must go into the live room to set up his own amp and microphones, connect cables in the correct manner, and warm up so that he’s ready.  If he doesn’t know how to do something (which happens quite frequently), he has to ask.  A member of his class is in the control room manning the console and operating Logic.  She must record-arm tracks within the software and check that the sound levels aren’t too high or distorting.  Someone else must communicate with Joe, who is on the other side of the glass. “Miss, how do I get him to hear me?” one student asks.  I don’t say a word.  “Press that button to your right, it’s called the talkback.” says another student – connected learning at its finest!

Joe finishes his recording.  He’s got a great-sounding project.  Then, I send him to our Photography department, where the students there take some amazing photos of him.  He brings his photos to the Graphic Design department, where the students there create a professional-looking package for his demo CD.  At the end of it all, a student from the film department records and edits a simple music video of Joe playing his song live, so that he can put it online and link it to his college applications.  And voilà! Mission accomplished, and then some.

The moral of this story is this: I did not teach Joe how to record.  Instead, we at The DAE provided an environment in which the people in his network could support his quest to record the perfect demo.  Parties involved included his mother, his Facebook friends, his uncle, his fellow classmates, and the photography, graphic design, and film departments within The Digital Arts Experience.  In addition, he was able to use resources such as PowerPoint, YouTube, SoundCloud, GarageBand, Logic, Final Cut, and Photoshop.

In essence, the process of connected learning is exactly as it sounds.  It is the concept of evolving by being connected to those around us, as well as being invested in what we are learning and teaching.  Those are the concepts we’re trying to foster here… one experience at a time.