Designing Harmony
Trinity engineering students designing an acoustics solution for Ruth Taylor Recital Hall
Wednesday, January 13, 2021
joseph kneer conducting an orchestra

Engineering isn’t just about math or physics, it’s about solving problems.

"Engineering is applying science to solve problems,” explains Darin George, Ph.D., program assessment officer and design administrator for engineering science. “It's a constant learning process."

At Trinity, future engineers start taking design courses from the moment they arrive on campus. The design sequence is an eight semester sequence, meaning Trinity engineers are learning how to solve problems, hands-on, for the entirety of their engineering science education.

"To say that this is an engineering degree only tells part of the story,” shares Ethan Weiss ’21, an engineering science major. “It's really a problem solving degree in science.” 

The design sequence culminates in a year-long, capstone project in which students work with community partners to solve a wide variety of problems. “They have three years of engineering education they're bringing into this, but they're still having to do research and learn new things,” George explains. “And learning will be part of their careers from here on out."

Last year’s projects included building a mobility cart for Mobility Worldwide, an international nonprofit that donates mobility carts to developing third world countries, and designing tools to help StemBioSys transfer cell growth media sterilely and efficiently. This year, students are building specialized cat collars, designing an organic waste solution for Mabee Dining Hall, and more.

Last year, engineering students designed a hand-powered motor cart used by paraplegics in developing countries.

One group of students—Naim Barnett ’21, Corbin Hartung ’21, Alex Love ’21, and Weiss—is working on a project to remedy the acoustic issues in Trinity’s own Ruth Taylor Recital Hall, a project suggested by Joseph Kneer, assistant professor of music and director of Trinity’s symphonic orchestra. Because Ruth Taylor Recital Hall was primarily designed for lectures and small concerts, the stage in the hall has some spots that overly project sound and other spots that poorly project sound. The orchestra has had to compensate for these acoustic issues, but the situation is not ideal.

To address this issue, Barnett, Hartung, Love, and Weiss are designing a system of components made of materials that can either absorb or reflect sound, with George as their faculty adviser. To accomplish this goal, the students are first building a simulation of Ruth Taylor Recital Hall that allows them to test a variety of materials for a relatively low cost before they commit to the materials they will use to build their components. This upcoming semester, they plan to build each component based on the results of their simulation.

The group ran simulations to see how different component placements would affect the sound onstage.

Barnett, Hartung, Love, and Weiss have divided themselves into pairs to best utilize their strengths for the project. Hartung and Love are working on building the simulation and determining how acoustics currently function in the space, while Barnett and Weiss are determining how to best use and implement materials based on their acoustic properties—within their $1,200 budget, of course. They also take turns serving as the project leader so that each member has the opportunity to develop their own leadership skills.

The group also has been working with outside acoustics experts to help with the design process in addition to their research. "It's not only knowing the ways in which you can amplify, the ways in which you can diffuse, the ways in which you can reflect sound. It's knowing the actual space, what this acoustic property can do, what is the purpose of it in this space," Weiss explains.

“We're not making one thing; We're making three or four, maybe even five, large components that interact with the space and each other. And they all have different material properties,” Love adds. “There are so many more factors that come when you're making a system rather than a single piece."

The project has had its fair share of difficulties: Trinity does not offer courses in acoustic engineering, meaning the students have had to rely on their own research, and the software Hartung and Love are using to build their simulation is rather finicky. In addition, COVID-19 and social distancing measures have severely limited the testing work in the recital hall.

Still, the project is not ultimately about these little things. It is about designing a system that increases people’s enjoyment of music. “We can try to make what signifies that we have succeeded at the project specific and measurable,” Love says. “But, at the end of the day, we're just trying to make the space sound good.”

Madison Semro '21 helps tell Trinity's story as a writing intern with Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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