Hands playing a piano

To the Fullest Extent

Electro-Mechanical Engineering Technology students partner with community members to help Emily Mathis make beautiful music.
By: Therese Boyd

College students working on senior projects always have two goals in mind. The first is universal—a good grade. The second goal varies. It could be building a business making sneakers from recycled materials. Or maybe a weather balloon as part of a local company’s research. But some projects are far smaller and more personal, such as when Penn State engineering students developed a remote-controlled wheelchair so that its user could travel independently.

At the beginning of every semester Craig Brennecke, professor of practice in engineering at Penn State Altoona, presents students with a list of potential senior projects (he was the one who brought together the team of students who worked on the wheelchair). For fall 2021 one particular idea—one with a backstory—struck a chord with some of the students.

Emily Mathis started to play the piano around age seven. She says, “I have always loved the arts.” Some of her influences are artists that she heard perform at Penn State, including Oscar Peterson, Betty Carter, and Ray Charles. At fifteen, Mathis suffered a spinal cord injury and could no longer utilize the sustain pedal on the piano. She faced challenges because of the injury, but it didn’t stop her from playing.

Mariah Plants, pianist Emily Mathis, Ishimeal Nance, and Jeff Hartman

Left to right: Mariah Plants, pianist Emily Mathis, Ishimeal Nance, and Jeff Hartman

Credit: Penn State

She continued to study music and graduated from Messiah College with a degree in music education. Following this, Mathis completed a master’s of music degree at the University of Tennessee with the opportunity to study with jazz pianist and composer Donald Brown. She continues to perform and record in both Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

Philip Graybill had also studied music education at Messiah but his post-college career took another path. “After eight years in an unrelated field,” he explains, “I went to Penn State for an electrical engineering degree.” He’s now working on a Ph.D. in engineering at University Park.

In one of those coincidences usually reserved for movies, Mathis says she “was grocery shopping with my mom and I ran into Phil. And then I saw him again. And again.” She started to think about a problem she was having musically and thought maybe Graybill—with his music and engineering background—was just the person to solve it.

Over the years, Mathis has tried several piano pedal devices, which led her to a better understanding of adaptive equipment. She mentioned the possibility of designing an updated device as existing devices had issues that needed to be refined. She says, “I wanted to utilize the piano to the fullest extent. I really wanted to do that. So I asked him.”

Graybill was very open to the idea. He already had connections to Penn State Altoona; conversations with Todd Batzel, professor of electrical engineering, had led to Graybill becoming an adjunct instructor for a microcontrollers course and an analog circuits lab in fall 2020. When Graybill mentioned Mathis’s pedal problem, Batzel suggested approaching Brennecke with the idea as a capstone project. Brennecke’s response: “This is fantastic!”

Mathis had experience using a pneumatic actuator and her body movements to operate the pedals, she says, but wanted to minimize the noise level and overcome design challenges. Graybill was problem-solving on the electrical engineering end from the start: “When she proposed the piano device, I was thinking, ‘I know how to do the part that would sense her head tilt.’ But pushing the pedal down is a mechanical engineering problem.” Who better to solve mechanical issues than EMET majors? Three students signed on: Mariah Plants, Ishimeal Nance, and Jeff Hartman, all senior EMET majors.

“I was technical consultant,” Graybill says. “My responsibility was designing the electronics in the headband that Emily wears and one for the floor device. For the floor, I programmed a commercially made electronics board.” But there were still those mechanical issues. Because Mathis records, she needed a silent device. “The pneumatic one was too loud,” Plants explains. Another concern, according to Nance, was “how fast it responded.” Mathis needed to be able to make the pedal work at just the right time in the music; hesitation would be a problem.

Support for the entire project came from many sources. Funding was provided by the EMET–Zach Hoover Memorial Fund. Plants says employees at the Robert M. Sides Music Center in State College “did a couple of measurements and we figured out an average size for the structure. They also measured the weight for us.” In addition, “Len Puccio of Bostech donated and paid for the actuator, which came from LinMot.”

“Once we got that donation,” Nance says, “then we had to figure out how to power it and what components to use.” Hartman adds, “We need the smallest battery with the highest amount of voltage.” Once they knew what they needed, next was figuring out the configuration. They also had to make sure the device would be stable: “We had to make a plate on the bottom of the piano to make it stay put,” Plants says. For full technical details, see the students’ presentation online.

Everyone involved enjoyed working on the project. That enthusiasm comes as no surprise to Brennecke, who says that when he has “a project that helps people, I get a lot of interest.” Graybill has even considered continuing to work on the device to make improvements: “Depending on where I land next year, I might work on a version 2.0.”

No one, though, is more pleased than Mathis. “It’s amazing to hear the full extent of what the piano can play,” she says. “Responsiveness is excellent. When you hear all these sounds with the mixing pedals, these densities, you can create a lush ballad, more energy; there’s a whole host of things you can do with it. It was very exciting. I can hear the potential. It will propel me to continue to pursue the art form. I am so thankful and appreciative of everyone who helped to make this project possible.”