Just one CARESS

11th February 2000 at 00:00
In Europe, a group of projects operating under the formula of i3 (intelligent information interfaces) is currently exploring ideas that are challenging the current technological practices and society expectations upon school. Of these projects, 12 are focusing on new ways of integrating technologies in class environments, developing new tools, testing them in real environments and embedding them in real pedagogical practices. One of them, with the soothing name of CARESS, is refining a sound-making device both for special needs and mainstream children.

Dr Phil Ellis, from Sunderland University, is the initiator and co-ordinator of CARESS. Dr Ellis had a firm belief and motivation to start the project: that sound therapy may enable progression and development in children with several and severe learning difficulties even when they have previously shown little potential for change through other forms of therapy. As the project progressed, he has started to believe that this method has an incredible potential, also in mainstream education.

Unlike any music instrument, the CARESS sound device does not require any traditional music skill to be performed. Just a sensitive and responsive interest in the world of sound and a piece of technology: a Soundbeam ultrasonic spatial sensor and a few more "muscle sensors" which can produce an extended palette of sounds. Just imagine a sort of microphone placed close to a part of your body, behind your head for instance, which is able to capture your movements and transform them into sounds. Then take some pads, stick them to your arms, for instance: the muscle sensors will detect even the minimal electrical activity of contractions and translate it into sound. An incredible variety of sounds, with acoustics simulating forests, cathedrals, concert halls, inhabited castles or any other open space. This incredible richness of aesthetically appealing sounds, the need to master them in a creative fashion, of being in control without being constrained, can provide children with a strong internal motivation to discover their bodies and creatively express themselves from the inner to the outer, either alone or as part of a group working for a common objective.

The potential and the use of CARESS are obviously very different fo children with learning disabilities and for mainstream education. But in both cases, it has proved to effectively work to improve certain skills, whereas other methods had failed.

Derek is nine years old. He has cerebral palsy and is physically heavily impaired. Before starting the sound therapy, he was reluctant to use the left side of his body. For quite a long time, physiotherapists had tried to have him use his left arm, unsuccessfully. At the first session of sound therapy, with the muscle sensor on his left arm, Derek moved it spontaneously for the first time. "The sensor provided the motivation to exercise and control his limb," Dr Ellis explains. Several months later, Derek still chooses to use his left arm in the sound therapy session, but what is more extraordinary, he has transferred this practice into his daily life as well as classroom activities. He now works on the computer using both hands and may choose his left hand to grab objects.

In a primary school in Warwickshire, the Sound Beam and sensors are being used to "develop an exciting new dimension to curricular and extra-curricular activities," says Dr Ellis. A large number of activities has been proposed to a group of four to six-year-old children. Be they artistic performances on a chosen theme, spatial games, narrations with the help of sound and movement, they all stress the value of collaboration as something which should not be enforced but spontaneously chosen by the children to enhance their experience. These activities have also shown a lot of potential to encourage language development, communication and narrative skills, as well as concentration and anticipation skills, the development of physical motor control, co-operation and expression through movement and sound.

In the age of the magnification of the Internet, there is still some room for imagining a different role for technology in our life.

CARESS http:www.bris.ac.ukcaress Contact Dr Phil Ellis, Ms. Lisa Percy, Stefan Hasselblad at: Phil.Ellis@sunderland.ac.uk Lisa@hiphouse.freeserve.co.uk stefan.hasselblad@bun.landskrona.se You can also access Caress, and the other i3 projects, through the i3 site http:www.i3net.org i3 is a programme launched in 1996 with the support of the European Commission.

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