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The Multisensory Sound Lab: Students Turn On To Sound 

by Paula Hendricks, M.A., Patti Jean Jacke, M.A., & Norman Lederman, M.S.


The Multisensory Sound Lab is a special audio system that amplifies sound through loudspeakers, while transforming these sounds into vibrations that can be felt by the body through a special "floor" and can be seen by means of colorful visual displays.

The first Multisensory Sound Lab resulted from a question posed twenty years ago by a science teacher at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf..."How can I teach my deaf students what sound is if they cannot hear?"  Although originally developed to teach the science of sound to deaf students, the design and uses of the Sound Lab have expanded over the years to include physics, science education, auditory training, speech therapy, parent education, outreach, expanding awareness about hearing loss, music appreciation/instruction, music therapy, physical therapy, dance instruction and performance, and relaxation activities for normally hearing and hearing impaired people alike.  This article will discuss the technology, and spotlight a school that has incorporated the Sound Lab into its programs.

The Technology

The Multisensory Sound Lab electronically processes sound signals from microphones, musical instruments, recordings and other sources, and directs them to low frequency loudspeakers placed face down on a special platform.  This platform consists of interlocking panels that are floated two inches above the classroom floor on fiberglass isolation blocks.   People sitting or standing on the platform will perceive sound as vibrations.  Low to high pitch sounds will be perceived as slow to fast vibrations.  High pitch sounds that are beyond the vibrotactile range of the platform may be electronically shifted down to enhance the experience.   For example, the sounds produced by a small child or flute may be shifted down one or two octaves so that they can be easily felt through the vibrating platform.  Intensity and rhythm information may also be perceived through the platform.

The Visualizer spectrum analyzer and oscilloscope respectively display the frequencies/harmonics and the wave forms of sounds presented through the Lab.  The LumaSound Light is a seven foot tall column of sculpted translucent corrogated plastic containing three banks of colored lights that respond to different frequency bands and to varying intensities of sound. 

Accessories for the Lab include a laser that displays the rhythm of sound as constantly changing abstract shapes that are projected on a  ceiling or wall, cassette/CD player, drum machine, electric guitars and keyboards, electronic stethoscope, modified Simon auditory and visual memory game, and an induction loop assistive listening system that transmits sounds from the teacher's voice to hearing aids switched to the telephone ("T" -switch) mode.   The Lab's modular design enables the system to be tailored to meet individual site needs.

Any sound can be described by its frequency/pitch, intensity/loudness, time/rhythm and spectrum/timbre characteristics. With the Sound Lab these characteristics come alive with vibrations and visual images.  No longer an abstraction, the characteristics of sound are distinctly displayed and experienced with the Lab by maximizing information perceived through existing auditory, tactual and visual modalities.

Applications at the St. Joseph's School for the Deaf

In September, 1994, a Multisensory Sound Lab was installed at St. Joseph's School for the Deaf in the Bronx, New York.  The Lab has enhanced the students' educational program in the areas of auditory and speech training, audiology education, music appreciation, dance instruction, and communication and interaction with hearing peers.

The Lab has offered educational audiologists, speech, infant and physical education teachers the opportunity to implement creative ways to educate students and to bring deaf and hearing children together.  The functions of the Lab allow for an increase or decrease of auditory, visual, and vibratory information depending upon the goal of training.  The Lab has been used for initial sound exposure and conditioning with several Deaf Infant Program students, some of whom readily make the connection between the presentation of sound and the associated vibratory and visual stimuli.  Nursery and kindergarten students are successfully discriminating between loud and quiet, and high and low pitched verbal and environmental sounds.  In their individual therapy rooms, speech teachers are replicating instructional materials and activities that are used either in preparation for, or for carry-over skill practice from Lab activities.  Primary Elementary students are identifying distinctions between loud singing/music and quiet singing/music.  This skill development training is presented within the context of enjoyable, non-traditional auditory/speech lessons that are designed by the Speech and Audiology Services staff.

Middle Elementary students are involved in SJSD's  Audiology Education Program for which the Lab's main components and accessories provide auditory, vibratory and visual representations of how sound waves travel through the air, how sound waves differ relative to the pitch of the sound, and which sounds are audible and which are not, depending upon one's auditory profile.  Students are learning about the wide range of auditory abilities within the classifications of hearing, hard of hearing and deaf.

Two years ago the vibrating platform of the Sound Lab was used to provide the foundation training in modern dance movements for Primary Elementary students.  They were able to successfully carry over these skills to the non-vibrating gym floor for the SJSD Dance/Gymnastics Show.  This year the Lab is "the place to be" to learn the the "hot" new dances, the Electric Slide and the Macarena!

The Lab has also been the site for the Pre-Primary Department Speech Olympics which featured these students' successes in developing the suprasegmental and phonologic skills of speech, much to the appreciation of their hearing and deaf parents.

Third and fifth grade classes from local public and parochial schools have attended audiology education, science of sound and dance instruction classes in the Lab with SJSD students.  The Lab provides a non-threatening environment and valuable community resource in which the students can more comfortably interact . 

During St. Joseph's School for the Deaf's 125th anniversary celebration, many alumni visited the school and experimented with the Lab.  Adults ranging in age from mid- twenties to mid-eighties raised questions about vocalization and the production of specific speech sounds.

The Multisensory Sound Lab is an engaging and "perception enhancing environment" for education of and about deaf and hard of hearing people.  The applications of this exciting technology are as limitless as the creativity of the teachers, who seem to enjoy the Lab as much as the students do.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the support received for the development of the Multisensory Sound Lab from the Small Business Innovation Research Program of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC.

For more information on the Multisensory Sound Lab, click here.

Please contact the authors at info@ovalwindowaudio.com for detailed references on information cited in this article.  Paula Hendricks, M.A., is Educational Director and Norman Lederman, M.S., is Director of Research & Development at Oval Window Audio, 33 Wildflower Court, Nederland, CO  80466,  phone/fax/TDD: 303-447-3607. Patti Jean Jacke, M.A., is Supervisor of Speech & Audiology Services at St. Joseph's School for the Deaf, Bronx, NY.

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