Home National museum Two Clemson exhibits on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

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


The ACCelerate Creativity + Innovation Festival provides a showcase for research and discovery from undergraduate students to the next generation of scientists

The notion of being in two places at once is no longer science fiction.

Two Clemson University experiential learning facilities 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 over the weekend of April 8-10, 2022. The hands-on interactive displays were part of an exhibit organized by the 2022 ACCelerate Creativity + Innovation Festival presented by the Smithsonian and Virginia Tech.

About 30,000 visitors to the Museum of American History explored some of the most innovative research taking place at the intersection of science, engineering, art and design, including Clemson’s facilities. Twelve schools from across the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) participated in the event.

Covering the space and time of a weekend was a unique experience for the Clemson students who participated. Clemson exhibits have been selected:

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

Building brains: neural circuits on a microscope slide

When students bring their own ideas to brain research, it creates a playful experience that lends itself perfectly to a Smithsonian-style setup, the science teachers explain.

Take, for example, the optical tweezers. The instrument, which lives in the lab of Assistant Professor of Physics Joshua Alper, has been transformed into a hanging claw-like arcade game so young visitors to the museum can explore its application and possibilities in research. on the brain. The optical tweezers and microelectrode array instrument allow Clemson researchers to build small neural circuits on a microscope slide. By manipulating the circuits with the optical tweezers, then testing those circuits electrically by exciting them and probing them using the microelectrode array, students can make their own discoveries about how the brain works.

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, he is rewarded with a festive flashing light.

The idea was developed by Alper’s undergraduate students several years ago. Since then, his Creative Inquiry cohort has been contributing to the Neural Circuits Project.

“It’s almost entirely undergraduate-focused,” he says, adding that it represents a whole new line of research for his lab.

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

“Our idea was to use the technology we had for manipulating cells to try to build and construct these little neural circuits,” says Alper. “Ultimately, the goal is to try to understand what the fundamental functional unit of the brain is so that we can better understand how the brain works.”

A computer in the Building Brains exhibit is connected to the Optical Tweezer – Microelectrode Array, allowing Smithsonian visitors to virtually use the Optical Tweezer and manipulate individual cells located in the Clemson Laboratory at the museum in Washington, DC C’ is one of five different stations within the exhibition. Another Station is basically a computer game to illustrate the idea of ​​learning and memory and how simple neural circuits can be used to better understand the fundamental workings of learning and memory.

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

“They can meet these real scientists who are working on these real problems and find out that it’s totally doable,” he says. “And maybe that inspires a child to pursue a science education.”

Fargates to connect people, places and digital content

When Clemson’s School of Architecture and the 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 get into your phone,” says Winifred Elysse Newman, associate dean for research and academic affairs at the College of Architecture, Arts and the Humanities. Newman is also the Mickel Professor of Architecture and director of the Clemson Institute for Intelligent Material Systems and Environments, and she explains the exhibit experience, saying, “In a way, it’s being able to walk into your phone on all levels .

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

An interactive display of screens and sensors depicts 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 a world of imagination to museum patrons.

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

In recent years, people mainly interact with screens. In the Smithsonian, the goal of the project is that we try 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 come into our physical space, is that they’re in the Smithsonian and out of the Smithsonian; they are in digital space, in physical space and on the moon; they’re in Washington and Clemson,” says co-collaborator Brygg Ullmer, a Clemson professor and president of the Human-Centered Computing Division. “When they look down they see floors woven with light from not physically in Clemson but possibly physically on the moon.”

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

The screens and partitions remain relatively fixed, says Ullmer, but like a spine, the exhibit is designed to move. “It can roll up and then roll up in the opposite direction, 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 reflects insight into social media, the gaming space, and what it means to be part of a metaverse.

Newman says, “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 as well as faculty and staff. This is a great opportunity for our Clemson students to be able to interact both with children visiting the museum and with their peers from other ACC institutions.

John Griffin, Senior Vice-Rector

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