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CoD and Health Sciences collaboration integrates science and art

April 16, 2012   |  

Project Credits:


University of Kentucky College of Design
School of Architecture

Written by: Dr. Rita Patel and Sarah Heller

An interesting opportunity presented itself where the first year design studio of Sarah Heller, an architect and instructor at the UK College of Design, teamed up with Dr. Rita Patel director of the Clinical Voice Center and Vocal Physiology and Imaging Laboratory, at the UK College of Health Sciences. Dr. Patel conducts an NIH-funded study that investigates vocal fold motion that lead to the development of voice disorders in children with the use of specialized equipment called high speed digital imaging and custom-built pediatric laser endoscope. In addition to conducting research, Dr. Patel also treats children with voice disorders.

For her research and clinic, Dr. Patel, examines the vocal folds of children with an endoscope, which is a small cylindrical medical tube that allows her to see around corners and in dark places like the throat. In order to get the children engaged during the examination process, Dr. Patel has a collection of off-the-shelf toys i.e. a cheese hat, a plastic yoda, and a stuffed trachea toy, Larry the Larynx (Blue Tree Publishing), which she uses while attempting to perform endoscopy.

This collaboration began when Sarah Heller met Dr. Patel over a dinner involving several employees of UK. After learning about what she did and her clinical study Sarah became personally interested in the question: "How can knowledge of design be used to create a functional design model that would facilitate Dr. Patel's research and clinical practice?" As an architect Sarah strongly believes that research on any given topic can be generative to a concept in design, and through this concept a statement on form (art and design) and function (in this case medical) can be established. This project served as a perfect opportunity for two disciplines at UK to combine and explore the use of design for medical purposes and educate the first year designers in methods of scientific investigations and provide firsthand experience to creatively extract a concept from the medical field, to generate a form for a client.

"Dr. Patel and I became fast friends after we met over dinner through a colleague," said Sarah Heller, architect and faculty in the UK College of Design. "As an architect I've always been fascinated by the human body am inspired by its design, proportion and function. What began as a simple conversation about her clinical study involving the larynx turned into my participation in her clinical trial. I was able to witness the movement of my own vocal folds through high definition video and found the structure and movement inspiringly beautiful."

Sarah decided to get her first year undergraduate design student's in the course, 'ARC 101 and interior design ID 121' involved on the topic where they spent the last 5 weeks of the semester addressing this issue. To begin the design process, everyone at the design studio experienced the scoping process first hand. Both architecture and interior design students participated in endoscopy in exchange for a high-definition video of their own vocal folds in motion.

"It was really interesting researching something that had nothing to do with architecture," said Brittany Dingeldein, student of UK College of Design. "Looking at diagrams and physical models we were able to make a connection to what was being ask from the department and further develop an educational toy to learn about the Larynx. Intertwining two very different subjects, medical and architecture, was awesome and difficult but end results were very rewarding."

Although a non-invasive camera was used to perform the examination some of the College of Design students were confronted with anxiety and a strong gag reflex. A few were unable to participate for endoscope.

This experience became the springboard to research and explore these topics further and design an educational model to serve the purpose of engaging a young child that is being scoped while at the same time use the model to educate on a topic concerning how the vocal folds work. This educational model could be a fun toy about the larynx (voice box) that is distracting, engaging a child to learn about his/her body, and teaching a child who is experiencing problems the correct way to use their voice to reduce vocal fold nodules, during voice therapy. Vocal nodules are one of the common voice disorders in children that are a result of incorrect / excessive voice use (screaming, cheering, shouting, etc.)

"This project blended ideas of medicine and education with the seemingly disparate field of architecture into an interesting and very fun experience," said Cat Wentworth, who was, at the time, a student participant from the UK College of Design.

Sixteen design students researched the natural anatomy of the larynx, its function, and its mechanical nature. After numerous discussions and lectures with Sarah and Dr. Patel, each student independently selected aspects of voice production, voice assessment, and treatment that best interested them, as a concept for their model. The lecture that Dr. Patel gave at Sarah's studio also convinced one student to quit smoking cold turkey after one slide that showed the ramifications of cigarette smoking on the vocal folds!

"After diagramming and performing many studies about the function and form of the human larynx, I was able to find a new way of designing that was incredibly beneficial to me and my classmates in understanding the correlation of architecture and the physical world," said Kendall Edward Latham, a student participant from the UK College of Design. "It was amazing that through the fusing of two seemingly different topics, my classmates and I were able to design diagrammatic toys that educated the user on specific functions of the Larynx."

The final review for the project showcased the student's model along with a storage case designed to protect and store their forms. The models beautifully illustrated various concepts of voice production, vocal fold movement, and voice therapy that are traditionally difficult to present to a child. Some of the models were interactive, where the child could stretch the vocal folds, indicating the mechanism of increase in length to generate a high pitch voice. Another model was in the form of a music box with series of stacked drawers, where a child could open each one, to see the different positions of the vocal fold movements, during voice production. Others illustrated the same concept in different forms like the butterfly, and a rattle in shape of an alligator, which would be of interest to young children. These models will be used in voice research and clinic to engage the child during endoscopic assessment, to illustrate how the voice works, and to demonstrate the concepts of easy resonant voice and hoarse voice during voice therapy.

For the design students the models also served to illustrate real world concepts that they would typically not be exposed to in the traditional course. Through this project the design students had the unique opportunity to perform medically correct illustration of anatomy and function of the larynx, perform diagram drawings to articulate the concept behind their model and how a doctor could use the model, and learn the difference between a diagram drawing versus an architectural drawing. The focus of this project served to get the student to hone in on a design concept and clearly articulate the goal, function, and approach of their process. This was also the first time most of them had to work with wood, plexiglass and plaster so the designers spent a good amount of time learning to work with different mediums that they were allowed to choose from. This is the first unique successful collaboration between the disciplines of architecture and speech pathology at UK, integrating science and architectural design.

What started off as a fun, mutual interdisciplinary exploration between a right brain and a left brain thinker, resulted in win-win collaboration between two seemingly different fields of the arts and the sciences, successfully integrating ideas and process to create new knowledge through different perspectives.

The students agreed to donate their work to the UK Clinical Voice Center and Vocal Physiology and Imaging Laboratory, for use in research involving endoscopy and in voice therapy.