Unique Sensory Feature Designed by Rensselaer Students to be Implemented at The Arc of Rensselaer County

TROY, N.Y. — An interactive structure designed, built, and programmed by student engineers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will soon be a source of serenity for people supported at The Arc of Rensselaer County, an organization that provides services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The unique sensory structure will be unveiled at a public event on Wednesday, October 23 at 1 p.m., at The Arc of Rensselaer County, located at 4015 NY2, Troy, N.Y.

Sensory features are often used as a form of therapy for individuals who have difficulty processing too much sensory information like light or sound. Unlike most sensory spaces, which are geared toward children, this one was created for adults.

“What sets this apart is that it looks like it’s a piece of art and has the ability for people to interact with the components if they are standing or sitting in a wheelchair,” said Sandy VanEck, director of innovation and design for The Arc of Rensselaer County.

The structure is made from cherry wood and lined with LED lights that change color, sand disks that rotate, and buttons that allow people to interact with the feature on their own terms. Student engineers designed, constructed, and programmed the system, from the physical structure to the interactive lighting elements and motorized features. You can see video of the structure here.

“This is going to give people a space to go to that is calm and relaxing,” said Don Mullin, chief executive officer of the organization. “Down the road for the community, I think it’s going to be huge because there’s nothing like this in Rensselaer County.” 

This is just one example of the work Rensselaer engineering students are doing to address real-world design challenges through the O.T. Swanson Multidisciplinary Design Laboratory. The technical challenges they address come from industry leaders, nonprofits, or entrepreneurial ventures.

“The multidisciplinary capstone course provides a project-based learning experience that gives students a realistic engineering experience before they transition to professional careers. As they will encounter in the industry, the teams interact with the customer to learn their needs, translate those needs into technical requirements, and design a solution,” said Kathryn Dannemann, professor of practice in materials science and engineering, and director of the Multidisciplinary Design Laboratory. “The hard work and dedication of the student project team, and guidance from Design Lab faculty and staff mentors, made the sensory feature a reality.”

The capstone projects engage students from different engineering disciplines as they work together and embody the interdisciplinary approach to education, research, and problem-solving that Rensselaer encourages.

These challenges, like the sensory structure, also remind students that, at its core, engineering is about people. A visit to the Arc brought that reality to life for the student team.

“It was a lot easier to move forward knowing we were delivering to a real customer who would really help people,” said Dan Gay, who graduated this past May with degrees in materials science and engineering, and computer science.

Emily Franklin, who recently graduated with a mechanical engineering degree, also said that interacting with people served by the Arc helped to put the project into perspective. “You want it to succeed, because you want them to succeed,” she said.

The Arc hopes the sensory structure will become a community resource that individuals and families across Rensselaer County who need a calming space will be able to access.