Melodica engineering project uses music to serve the community

Research in the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences often involves projects developed in the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge. This year, TURC student and mechanical engineering senior Alyssa Hernandez teamed up with mechanical engineering freshman Emily Tran and Kayla Eiland of Jenks High School, a TURC Junior student, to build a melodica musical instrument for residents at Tulsa’s Little Light House. The facility is a developmental center for children with special needs.

Left to right: Emily Tran, Kayla Eiland and Alyssa Hernandez

John Henshaw, Harry H. Rogers Professor of Mechanical Engineering, mentored the group as it conducted reverse engineering on a toy melodica. The students took apart the musical instrument and assessed its interior structure to understand how it operated. The keys of a melodica keyboard are played by blowing air into a mouthpiece connected to the side of the instrument, but Hernandez and the group made several modifications. They widened the keys and made them out of acrylic in the colors of the rainbow.

“We wanted the children to have fun with the colors, but we also added shapes and numbers to make it more of a learning instrument along with the music,” she said.

The melodica enhances children’s senses, creating sound and strengthening their mechanical skills. Instead of blowing air into a mouthpiece, children must use their hands or feet to pump air with a paddle into a balloon. When the balloon expands, the melodica’s keys produce sound.

A fun and interactive project, the instrument is in its preliminary stage. The group sought feedback this summer from Little Light House children and therapists to improve the melodica’s effectiveness as a user-friendly device.

melodica“We want to construct a mini grand piano that can sit on the floor and hide all of the chords in the back,” Hernandez said. “We also want to encase the balloon for safety, but this is just phase one.”

Occupational therapist Anne McCoy meets regularly with TU students who design and build developmental toys for Little Light House. She welcomes their ideas, creativity and dedication to serving the community.

“We are so willing and ready to provide all of the input we can to help make the project successful,” she said.

The finished project.

The melodica is not only a TURC project but also an endeavor of the Make a Difference Engineering (MADE at TU) initiative, established at TU to support local residents with physical or developmental disabilities. The musical instrument’s MADE at TU mission attracted Tran, an incoming freshman, to the group. As a member of Union High School’s FIRST Robotics team for three years, she is familiar with team activities based on mechanics and other areas of engineering.

“I realized I wanted to do hands-on work every day that is innovative and makes things better,” she said.

For Eiland, a high school student, participating in TU’s TURC Junior and MADE at TU programs is a great way to jump start her exploration into engineering research.

“I was looking at other colleges for something like this, but it just wasn’t as convenient and thorough,” she said. “It’s definitely a special program and really nice for students like myself who want to do research before they get to college.”