As electric pianos go, it doesn’t look like much. It’s small. It has only eight keys.
And as electric pianos go, it doesn’t even sound like much.
But those weren’t the criteria by which it was judged the winner of a contest at the Jewish Home in Rockleigh last week.
Instead, the judges were looking at such things as innovation and problem solving and its inventors’ presentation skills.
And the “Piano PT” designed by four sophomores at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck definitely was an innovative solution to a real problem.
The contest was dubbed “Carp Tank” — a gefilte-fishy Jewish variation on the ABC series “Shark Tank,” in which entrepreneurs pitch their product to a panel of investors. Members of all six competing teams were Ma’ayanot sophomores. And all their inventions were designed to solve the real problems of individual Rockleigh residents they had met with several times over the course of the year.
For the Ma’ayanot students, this was an enhancement of their required course in hands-on engineering that all freshmen and sophomores take. The class trains them in such cutting-edge technologies as 3D printing and programmable microcomputers, as well as such always-valuable skills as problem solving, collaboration, and communication. It also dovetails with Ma’ayonot’s classes in public speaking and its emphasis on self-assurance. For Rockleigh, this was one of a number of partnerships with area schools that bring young people in contact with its residents. Carp Tank is part of the Better Together program, an initiative funded by a foundation that encourages intergenerational relationships among Jewish students and senior citizens.
Some 30 residents of the home gathered to watch the “Carp Tank” competition. The walls had been festooned with cartoon sharks, but the presentations, with their statistic-filled PowerPoint slides, were strictly serious. The problems of the residents the students had gotten to know, the problems of growing old, of course are not unique; they are shared by millions of people. In the entrepreneurial language of Shark Tank mirrored by “Carp Tank,” that means there’s a mass market for the products designed by these students.
One team invented a hair brush with a joystick-controlled mirror that, when angled correctly, reflects the back of your head as you brush your hair. With a microprocessor connecting the joystick to a motor, the prototype brush cost only $29 to make. The team estimated it could be made in mass quantities for $8, making $29 a plausible retail price. They invented it to help one specific woman with Parkinson’s, but the market for people lacking eyes on the backs of their heads is far larger.
Another team put together a voice-activated device, resembling Amazon’s voice-operated Echo gadget, that could answer specific questions — like “Where are my children” — for an Alzheimer’s patient. It can also play music in response to voice commands.
One team developed what it calls the “Clap 22,” a lamp that could be turned on or off by clapping, rather than getting up to turn the switch. The woman they met at the Home “sometimes has trouble moving around on her own due to Parkinson’s,” Ora Hochberg, a team member, explained.
“Music Therapy” was designed to calm an agitated person. It detects its wearer’s heartbeat. If the pulse is above 125 beats per minute — if the person is agitated, in other words — an MP3 player begins playing Frank Sinatra’s “Stardust.” Frank Sinatra, the designers had discovered, is popular at the home.
“Chain Reaction” was an intriguing idea — a dust and CO2 monitor to alert people with breathing problems that they were in a potentially hazardous place. This was a project that showed the limitations to students’ tinkering with off-the-shelf components as opposed to large-scale product design. While it’s sadly easy to envision dystopian futures where we all will have to carry air monitors at all times, in such a future the monitors presumably would be miniaturized. The team tried to turn this liability into a feature, making the visible wires connected to the sensors even more gaudy, so that it might double as a fashion accessory.
But “Press Yes” didn’t suffer from being built in a Teaneck high school laboratory rather than a Chinese Foxconn factory. It was meant to be big and visible and heavy. It’s a communication board, where someone with difficulty speaking could press a button and a “Yes,” “No,” or “Neutral” would light up.
It was “Piano PT,” however, that won the top award.
The inspiration for the project was a resident with multiple sclerosis who wanted to strengthen one of her hands. She also loves music.
“She was telling us her favorite songs,” Daniella Schlagbaum, said. Daniella was one of the team that put together “Piano PT.” “She loves watching musicals with her grandchildren.”
“Piano PT” was designed “to make physical therapy a bit more fun,” Tzvia Major, another team member, said. “Piano PT” helps with physical therapy by displaying how much force the player uses to press the keys.
For Daniella, the best part of creating the miniature “Piano PT” was that “it was directed toward one specific person. It meant a lot to her that we spent all this time designing something personal for her that she will enjoy.” The team has to “fix up a few things,” team member Atara Weil said, and then they’ll give the model to the resident.