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19 November, 2009

Columbia professor's digital camera teaches children complex concepts

NEW YORK, November 17 - Columbia University professor Shree Nayar (picture above) has blended technology, innovation and art into a new digital camera designed to teach science to children around the world. The camera, called the Bigshot, comes as a kit of parts which kids as young as eight years old can assemble by themselves. In the process, they learn basic concepts of physics and engineering. Free, after-school programs for children to assemble and use the cameras are being scheduled now in New York.

Though the camera is simple to build, it features sophisticated technology, including an LED flash and three lenses: standard, panoramic and 3-D. Its color palette is inspired by M&Ms candies, a hand crank provides power even when there are no batteries, and a transparent back panel shows the camera's inner workings. (Click here to watch a video featuring an interview with Nayar and children using the camera.)

Nayar worked with a group of engineering students, led by Guru Krishnan, An Tran and Brian Smith, to create a website,, that walks children, teachers and parents through the assembly process. It uses flash animation to explain complex concepts like how a camera measures light and converts it into a digital image. The site will eventually serve as a kind of Flickr for kids, allowing young photographers from around the world to share their pictures.

"The idea here was not to create a device that was an inexpensive toy," says Nayar. "The idea was to create something that could be used as a platform for education across many societies."

Nayar, the T.C. Chang Professor of Computer Science and chair of that department at Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, worked on Bigshot for two years. The project is an extension of his work as director of the school's Computer Vision Lab, where he has expertise in highly sensitive cameras. Among his inventions is the Omnicam, a video camera that shoots seamless 360-degree images, and a technology - developed recently in collaboration with Sony – that extends the range of brightness and color that cameras can capture.

But, as the father of two young children, he wanted his work to have an impact beyond the high-tech sector, on a more humanitarian level. He was inspired by the 2005 Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels, which depicts the lives of children growing up in Calcutta's red-light district. The filmmaker, British photographer Zana Briski, gave 35 mm film cameras to eight children and watched as those cameras transformed their lives.

"The film reaffirmed something I've believed for a long time, which is that the camera, as a piece of technology, has a very special place in society," says Nayar, who grew up in New Delhi. "It allows us to express ourselves and to communicate with each other in a very powerful way."

With the Bigshot, Nayar wants to not only empower children and encourage their creative vision, but also to get them excited about science. Each building block of the camera is designed to teach a basic concept of physics: why light bends when it passes through a transparent object, how mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy, how a gear
train works.

"In modern society, we use technology without understanding it," says Lisbeth Uribe, a science teacher at the School at Columbia, a private primary school in New York. "I love that [Nayar] has built such sophisticated and advanced technology into this camera yet made it so accessible and transparent.
It's a great educational tool."

Nayar would like to roll out the camera, now in prototype form, internationally, with a large number being donated to underprivileged schools in the United States and abroad. He will soon begin looking for a partner - a company or nonprofit - to help put Bigshot into production.

In the meantime, Nayar, Krishnan, Tran and Smith have been field-testing the camera with children around the world. Over the summer, Krishnan and Tran took several Bigshot prototypes to their hometowns: Bangalore, India, and Vung Tau, Vietnam, respectively. In addition to the School at Columbia, Nayar also brought the camera to Mott Hall School, a public school in Harlem. Each scientist spent a morning teaching several small groups of children how to assemble the cameras; after lunch, their charges went out to take pictures. The kids responded with overwhelming

"They were ready to buy the camera then and there," says Krishnan. "One offered me 10,000 rupees ($200)." More importantly, tests that Nayar and his team gave out two days later showed that the students had retained the concepts that Bigshot was expected to teach.

"Bigshot helped me make use of the science I learned in school," said Hong Linh, 14, a student who tried the camera at Vietnam's Nguyen An Ninh Secondary School.

Eveangelista Muheto, 10, a student at the School at Columbia, said she was nervous at first about building a camera from scratch. But, after the lesson, she felt proud of her accomplishments. "I could tell everyone I had made a camera," she says. "I thought the camera was really, really cool, especially the three lenses, but it was even cooler
to help build it."

Nayar is now rolling out a regular, biweekly after-school program for kids across New York City. For him, the best part of this experience has been looking at the children's pictures.

"I am addicted to the pictures; I can't get enough of them," he says. "The fact that some of the kids were using a camera for the first time, and they were able to frame what they thought was important and capture that moment so beautifully, was really remarkable."

This post is based on a message received from Professor Sree Sreenivasan of the Columbia School of Journalism

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