Courtesy of Veronica Chen

When in-person internships were canceled last summer, six Yale undergraduates — Alice Huang ’22, Josh Vogel ’22, Michelle Tong ’21, Melanie King ’23, Sebastian Bruno ’22 and Veronica Chen ’22 — participated in a partnership with the Smithsonian to make two of the museum’s exhibits more accessible.

The SEAS 2020 Summer Design/Research Scholars Program was offered through the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to give students remote internship opportunities during the COVID-19 lockdown. Most students’ summer plans were altered due to the pandemic. For example, King originally planned to study abroad in Spain, while Huang intended to pursue an internship related to her major, biomedical engineering. 

Instead, they ended up working together with the Smithsonian. The students worked on two projects: an exhibit on human migration and an audiovisual music experience. Both are intended to go on view in a post-pandemic world.

“The Smithsonian project stood out to me,” Huang said. “I thought it was super interesting to engage with even though it is so different from my background.”  

The interactive exhibit, titled “World on the Move: 250,000 Years of Human Migration,” uses colored chips where different colors represent locations. Originally, visitors could choose chips that correlated with their hometown and sort them according to their reason for migration.

The students attempted to make this visually oriented exhibit accessible to people who are blind or low vision. Their solution included adding ridges to the colored chips as well as audio buttons to the exhibit.

For their second project, the group hoped to create an interactive audiovisual experience that was accessible for visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing. They built an exhibit examining the relationship between sound and emotion. The first part included a tutorial allowing users to learn about how different components of music correspond to different emotions. From there, users could engage with the exhibit by using hand motions to create visual masterpieces that were displayed on a screen.

Since the students hoped to increase accessibility, the exhibit’s auditory components were also conveyed in the form of colors. For example, lighter and brighter tones represented happy and peaceful emotions. The group also added tactile components — such as a sensory pad and heartbeat monitor — to enhance visitors’ sensory experience.

Chen noted that the project was a really good opportunity to think about design and storytelling, as it was part of a program that allowed participants to examine the various elements of engineering alongside its relationship with other fields.

The internship also inspired the students to focus on problems with accessibility going forward. “I want to consider trying to make things more accessible and I would love to do another project like this again,” King said.

Maia Decker |