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Beckman Institute Open House set for March 11-12

More than 30 exhibits featuring everything from a humanoid robot to clownfish to virtual reality environments will be on display at Beckman Institute Open House 2011, set for March 11-12. The exhibits will mirror the work that goes on at Beckman as they represent all four research themes and are as diverse and multidisciplinary as the research that takes place at the Institute.

Published on Feb. 28, 2011

Lydia Majure will be explaining how a robot the size of a human toddler can provide insight into how people acquire language. Daniel Miller will be talking about neuroscience, either while reprising his role as a referee for a basketball tossing exhibition or as a guide through a newly-created lab boasting aquariums of marine fish. Michael Walsh will be taking thermal pictures of visitors and talking about advances in biomedical technology, an area he works in as a Beckman Fellow.  

They are just three of the more than 300 volunteers who will be manning exhibits and providing other services to visitors at Beckman Institute Open House 2011, set for March 11-12. Open House at Beckman is a biennial affair, held every two years in conjunction with Engineering Open House at the University of Illinois. More than 7,500 people were estimated to have visited Beckman for Open House 2009. 

Beckman Institute Open House 2011 has sort of a bridal feel to it: some things old and some things new, something borrowed (albeit for 99 years) and something blue.

For example, visitors to Open House 2011 can see a Blue Tang fish in neuroscience researcher Justin Rhodes’s third floor exhibit featuring aquarium displays. Or they can get immersed in an old Open House favorite, the virtual reality environments of Beckman’s Illinois Simulator Laboratory (ISL), which are returning after a one-time hiatus. Or they can get acquainted with one of Beckman’s newest and most prominent additions, a humanoid robot on loan from a European robotics consortium for 99 years.

Those are just three of more than 30 exhibits that should make 2011 one of the more exciting and interesting Open House events of recent years. The exhibits will mirror the work that goes on at Beckman as they represent all four research themes and are as diverse and multidisciplinary as the research that takes place at the Institute.

Majure is a member of Steve Levinson’s Language Acquisition and Robotics Laboratory and is an Open House veteran. But this Open House will be different for Majure and her fellow lab members. Instead of the more basic robots the lab used in previous exhibits, this year they will be introducing Bert, an iCub humanoid robot, to the general public.

Bert is the only iCub in America and his capabilities are much more advanced than the lab’s previous robots.

“It is going to be pretty exciting,” Majure said of showing off Bert. “I’m expecting we are going to have a lot of people visiting this lab. So that will be fun and chaotic, I’m sure, at the same time.”

Miller is a member of Justin Rhodes’s research lab, which in 2009 used goggles that simulate intoxication and had visitors wear them while trying to shoot a basketball through a hoop. That exhibit is back, but the Rhodes lab will also feature a new research line that studies fish for what they can tell us about neuroscience. Their third floor lab will welcome visitors with an array of colorful marine fish in its impressive aquarium facing the corridor (where the Blue Tang lives) and where inside more than 1,000 gallons of aquarium space are home for the fish they study. Miller expects a good crowd for the third floor portion of their exhibit.

“We see a lot of people stopping by the display tank and asking questions. We also have tanks on the inside that are pretty cool to look at,” Miller said. “I think it’s going to be one of the more fun exhibits.”

Walsh is the first Beckman/Carle Fellow, a position in which he researches biomedical technologies toward diagnostic applications. This will mark his second Open House experience after also putting on an exhibit at Open House 2009.

“It’s a good learning experience,” Walsh said of Open House. “You have to figure out how to explain you stuff to a non-specialized audience. It’s nice to get that feedback from people, to hear what they think about it. It makes you think about your research in broader terms.”

For 2011 Walsh is adding an infrared camera to his exhibit in order to take thermal pictures of visitors and tie that technology which is used in cancer diagnosis into his research.

All three said they enjoy the Open House experience. Majure said she enjoys imparting the science about language acquisition research to Open House visitors

“It’s fun. I enjoy getting kids excited about science because that’s how we get the next generation of scientists,” she said.

“It was very fun, especially being able to explain the sort of research we’re doing at Beckman and how it is applicable to patient care at Carle,” Walsh said.

Miller said the best part of Open House for him “was talking to the kids. It’s hard to explain some science to the kids but I just liked interacting with them.”

One exhibit that is both old and new this year the excitement is the ISL’s popular visualization environments in the form of travelling exhibits. Visitors will get to get to take a virtual ride in the Driving Simulator, pilot a plane in the Flight Simulator and become immersed in the three-dimensional virtual world of the CAVE. The ISL contribution to Open House was missed in 2009 because of that facility’s move to its new south campus location. In 2011, ISL will have room 1005 all to itself in an exhibit that is sure to draw many visitors.

Beckman’s other facilities, the Imaging Technology Group (ITG), and the Biomedical Imaging Center (BIC), are showcasing their efforts as well. After the swap with ISL, BIC’s offices and mock magnets are now located on the first floor of Beckman and they will be explaining their work in their new location in room 1215. 

Exhibits featuring the many research lines at the Institute involving studies of the brain and cognition are slated. There are demonstrations of brain-computer interfaces, including a game of checkers and remote operation of an unmanned aircraft, an exhibition of how learning and memory works using non-invasive measurements, and a look at how the brain represents real-world scenes.

Exhibits involving atomic scale microscopy and self-healing materials will show the variety of nanoscale research taking place at Beckman. Researcher Mark Hasegawa-Johnson and his students have an exhibit called Audio Easter Egg Hunt that demonstrates how they are developing tools to visualize sound in one of the exhibits involving signal processing research.

Some exhibits will be hands-on, such as a presentation featuring a prototype of a mathematics teaching tool for the visually impaired. Beckman’s Deana McDonaugh is an Art and Design professor who teaches a class on design for people with disabilities. One of her students who is visually impaired, Sheila Schneider, created a series of bronze tactile sculptures with equations in Braille imprinted on them to help visually impaired children learn mathematics. Schneider will be on hand to discuss the design process for the tool, which is currently being tested in schools.

A couple of other new exhibits also sound intriguing. One group will be displaying the motion capture technology they use to study wheelchair propulsion, while another will be demonstrating the technology they used for remote teleoperation of an unmanned aircraft using brain waves of a human pilot.

As always, the Beckman Café will be serving breakfast and lunch and all of its menu items to visitors during both Open House days.