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Two Clemson exhibits put on display at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History 

ACCelerate Creativity + Innovation Festival provides a showcase for undergraduate student research and discovery for the next generation of scientists

The notion of being in two places at one time is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

Two Clemson University experiential-learning installations existed both at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and on the University’s main campus in South Carolina on the weekend of April 8-10, 2022. The hands-on, interactive displays were part of an exhibit hosted by the 2022 ACCelerate Creativity + Innovation Festival presented by the Smithsonian and Virginia Tech. 

An estimated 30,000 visitors to the American history museum explored some of the most innovative research happening at the intersection of science, engineering, art and design, including Clemson’s installations. Twelve schools from across the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) participated in the event. 

Spanning space and time for a weekend was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the Clemson students who took part. Clemson’s exhibits were selected:

  • For their ability to establish a shared environment between researchers and young explorers.
  • To connect people in the District of Columbia with researchers in Clemson, South Carolina. 

Building Brains: Neuronal Circuits on a Microscope Slide

When students bring their own ideas to brain research, it creates a gamified experience that lends itself perfectly to a Smithsonian-style installation, science faculty explain.

Take, for instance, the optical tweezer. The instrument, which lives in the lab of assistant physics professor Joshua Alper, was transformed into a dangling-claw-type arcade game so that young museum-goers could explore its application and its possibilities in the realm of brain research. The optical tweezer and microelectrode array instrument enable Clemson researchers to build small neuronal circuits on a microscope slide. By manipulating the circuits with the optical tweezer, and then testing those circuits electrically by exciting them and probing them using the microelectrode array, students can make their own discoveries about how brains function. 

Visitors to the Smithsonian interact with a Building Brains exhibit created by Clemson Creative Inquiry studentsVisitors to the Smithsonian interact with a Building Brains exhibit created by Clemson Creative Inquiry students
Building Brains: Neuronal Circuits on a Microscope Slide was installed at the Smithsonian to teach visitors about brain research.

At the Smithsonian, when a circuit has been successfully built by a young explorer, they are rewarded with a celebratory flashing light.

The idea was developed by Alper’s undergraduate students several years ago. Ever since then, his Creative Inquiry cohort has been contributing to the neuronal circuits project.

“It is almost entirely undergraduate driven,” he says, adding that it represents an entirely new line of research for his lab.

But neurons are inherently interesting, he offers, long considered the fundamental unit of the brain, performing the primary functions of the brain. However, recent research suggests that the individual cell itself can’t perform actual functions of the brain. Instead, they work together in small circuits.

“Our idea was to use the technology that we had to manipulate the cells to try to actually build and construct these small neuronal circuits,” Alper says. “Ultimately, the goal is to try to understand what the fundamental functional unit of the brain is so that we can further understand how brains work.” 

A computer in the Building Brains exhibit is connected back to the optical tweezer – microelectrode array, permitting Smithsonian visitors to virtually operate the optical tweezer and manipulate individual cells located back in the lab Clemson from the museum in Washington, D.C. It is one of five different stations within the exhibit. Another station is essentially a computer game to illustrate the idea of learning and memory and how simple neuronal circuits can be used to better understand how learning and memory work fundamentally.

The opportunity to teach the general public something about how fundamental brain research is being done at Clemson is a unique and powerful opportunity, Alper says.

“They can meet these real scientists working on these real problems and discover that it’s totally a doable thing,” he says. “And that maybe inspires a kid to pursue science.”

Fargates for bridging people, places and digital content

When Clemson’s School of Architecture and Human-Centered Computing Division collaborate, the result is a larger-than-life representation of the intersection between the physical and digital worlds. 

“Imagine if you could walk into your phone,” explains Winifred Elysse Newman, associate dean for research and academic affairs in the College of Architecture, Arts and the Humanities. Newman is also the Mitchell Professor of Architecture and the Director of the Clemson Institute for Intelligent Material Systems and Environments, and she explains the exhibit experience by saying, “In a sense, it’s being able to walk into your phone at every level.” 

“That opens up a whole world of imagination for them,” she says. “It is really a gateway into understanding — understanding that there’s going to be a time when I may not physically teleport myself, but I can teleport my brain.”

An interactive display of screens and sensors represents an installation at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. An interactive display of screens and sensors represents an installation at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
The Fargates for Bridging People, Places, and Digital Content exhibit was designed by Clemson students and faculty to open up a world of imagination to museum patrons.

Before Clemson undergraduate researchers could invite students to “teleport their brains” inside the Smithsonian, the Creative Inquiry cohort was tasked with physically transporting the hefty and complex technology from Clemson to Washington, D.C. Coding for the technology that powers the exhibit was still being processed in the hours before the festival’s opening; free-standing batteries joined student passengers during the 10-hour drive from South Carolina to the Smithsonian to provide a power source for ongoing computer coding. The multidimensional exhibit consists of eight partitioned elements and was reconstructed overnight inside the museum to be ready for patrons on Friday. Huge interactive screens above and below and within various three-dimensional components and textured papers all blended together into one transformative experience. 

In recent years, people mostly interact with screens. In the Smithsonian, the focus of the project is we are trying to show children that the physical world can also be interactive.”

Sida Dai, Ph.D. ’21, planning, design and the built environment

“The result, when they enter our physical space, is they are in the Smithsonian and outside of the Smithsonian; they are in digital space, in physical space and on the moon; they are in Washington and in Clemson,” says co-collaborator Brygg Ullmer, Clemson professor and chair of the Human-Centered Computing Division. “When they look down, they see floors woven with light from footsteps physically in Clemson but possibly physically on the moon.”

By intentionally weaving together various spaces, the experience becomes “very gray,” he says. “When you are here, when you are there, you are both.” Exactly the brand of mind-bending technology that resonates with today’s youth.

The screens and partitions stay relatively stationary, Ullmer says, but like a spine, the exhibit is designed to move. “It can wrap around and then wrap the opposite way, making it a very small object or a very large object at the same time.” 

It’s not unlike being transported by a phone or a video game, and the experience mirrors insights into social media, the gaming space and what it means to be part of a Metaverse. 

Says Newman: “A sense of wonder — that’s the gateway to really imagining the future, imagining yourself, imagining possibilities.” 

This year’s ACCelerate festival is truly a celebration of collaboration — with all 15 ACC schools represented by undergraduate and graduate students along with faculty and staff. It’s a great opportunity for our Clemson students to be able to interact both with children visiting the museum and peers at other ACC institutions.”

John Griffin, Senior Associate Provost

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