A Note from Neeli: February 2024

Fostering interdisciplinary research to drive positive change

February 7, 2024

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Penn State News.

This video is also offered in an accessible format with audio descriptions for viewers who are blind or visually impaired.

To the Penn State community, 

In the midst of great change for our institution, amazing research continues to happen across our campuses each and every day. As we navigate our University’s road map for the future, our dedication to our public-impact mission — translating our skills and knowledge to uplift communities, extending our reach well beyond our campuses, and creating transformational opportunities for students to have impactful experiences — remains constant. Your efforts are what propel Penn State forward. 

Today, I want to illustrate this impact by sharing the story of “Together, Tacit,” an inspiring interdisciplinary research and creative collaboration between the College of Arts and Architecture and College of Engineering. This research project combines the strength of our interdisciplinary focus, the dedication of our amazing faculty, and the tenacity of a remarkable student.  

I recently visited the Center for Pedagogy in Arts and Design and stepped inside the world of “Together, Tacit” — a unique example of the intersection of the arts and sciences fueled by student and faculty collaboration. Through a groundbreaking application of a haptic glove and virtual reality, artists and engineers at Penn State are working together to bridge the gap between how the blind and visually impaired (BVI) and sighted communities understand each other and the spaces we share. 

A partner on the project, State College community member Laura Shaffer became visually impaired due to a degenerative disease. She shared how this limited her ability to create visual art, including honing her talent for drawing. But “Together, Tacit” unlocked an entirely new avenue for creative expression through harnessing the power of engineering.  

Led by Bonnie Collura, professor of art, the team at Penn State designed and built a glove with haptic sensors, which mimic the physical sensations an artist feels when working with a medium like clay. The glove translates those movements to a virtual reality space. The software supporting the glove was developed in part by a talented undergraduate student, Isaac Arbelaez Venegas, who joined the team as part of an engineering capstone project.  

As you’ll see in the video, I had the opportunity to co-create a sculpture with Laura in a way that’s never been possible before. As Laura air-sculpts, I help guide her movements by watching through a virtual reality headset. 

Once we completed the piece, the team at Penn State’s Digital Fabrication Lab 3D-printed the sculpture. I am honored it now sits on my desk — serving as a daily reminder of how public impact research and creative activity are deeply embedded in not only my vision for the University, but also Penn State’s DNA.

When Isaac, who is an international student from Colombia majoring in engineering science and mechanics and mechanical engineering, showed me the computer code, his passion and excitement for the work was palpable. This means everything — we are here because of our students and I’m so proud Penn State is a part of his journey.  

The opportunities this research has provided to Isaac as an undergraduate researcher are a perfect example of our shared commitment to enhancing student success. Even more, he explained how this project solidified his belief that bridging engineering and accessibility can positively impact under-served communities. 

During our enlightening conversation, he shared a story of his childhood friend, a talented pianist who lived with a visual impairment.  

Through their friendship, Isaac began to understand some of the unique challenges visually impaired individuals face and how expressing themselves creatively was possible, if only they had an accessible outlet. For his friend, it was the piano; for artists of the “Together, Tacit” platform, it's a haptic glove and virtual reality.   

For Isaac, using his engineering skills to help bridge the gap between art and accessibility became more than a semester-long capstone project — it was a defining moment that he expects will shape his entire career path. This is the vision I have for every Penn State student — that through their experience here they find their passions, discover their strengths and set themselves on a path to have a meaningful life after they leave our University.  

I couldn’t be prouder of Isaac, Bonnie and the many Penn Staters who are bringing this project to life. As they continue their work, I am confident their efforts will foster deeper understanding and connections between individuals with and without visual impairments, while demonstrating the remarkable ways technology can be utilized to improve people’s lives. 

As “Together, Tacit” grows beyond the lab, the platform is being shared, tested and refined with the help of organizations serving the BVI community. One day, the team hopes the platform is readily available in schools and communities that support BVI individuals, providing a novel outlet for creative expression at their fingertips. 

“Together, Tacit” is an embodiment of so many things that make Penn State great — research and creative activity that reaches across disciplines, ample opportunities for student success and our shared commitment to make positive and transformative impacts in our communities. 

Learning about “Together, Tacit” only further solidified my steadfast commitment to empower our researchers and continue growing our world-class research enterprise. Please tell me about your impacts! 

While this semester has undoubtedly presented new challenges, stories like these demonstrate the deep dedication to our mission, especially to enhance student success. Which is why I’m confident that together, as Penn Staters, we will be resilient, adapt and navigate the future.  

I cannot wait to see what exciting advancements you will continue to create in the arts and sciences through interdisciplinary explorations. It is all possible because you are here. 

We are! 



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