Professor Shree Nayar may have found a new way to teach science—a build-it-yourself digital camera.
Nayar, a professor of computer science, has created Bigshot, a self-assembled digital camera that can introduce children to engineering, science, and mathematics.
“The camera itself is a device with enormous social appeal,” Nayar said. “I started thinking about how one could leverage that appeal, exploit it, by redesigning the camera to address a social problem, in this case, education.”
Inspiration struck in 2006, when Nayar decided to use his background in the field of optics to begin work on the camera. Earlier this month, the finished product was put up for sale on bigshotcamera.com.
The camera kit includes lenses, a prism for 3-D photos, a hand crank to generate power, and lessons that explain the science behind digital cameras. “It’s a very humble, low-tech piece of work,” Nayar said.
What makes the camera unique is that it arrives in parts, and users then assemble it themselves.
“It’s not a curriculum that’s rigid. It is an experience. You learn and build, and so you pick up some science,” he said.
By the time the camera is finished, “you get exposed to a wide range of science and engineering concepts,” Nayar said. “All these things we teach in college, we try to make it accessible to a younger audience.”
“Your early experiences with a field are very, very important,” he added.
Nayar plans to donate a portion of royalties to donate digital cameras to underprivileged kids around the globe. He also teamed up with the city’s Center for Arts Education to donate 50 cameras to public schools in New York City.
Brian Smith, SEAS ’09, began working as a research assistant on the project after taking a computer science class with Nayar during his final semester at Columbia.
“It was really awesome to see something that started out as just a few sketches of Shree’s on paper evolve into a product that could actually get into the hands of kids,” Smith said.
During the research process, Smith and Guru Krishnan, GSAS ’07 and a senior research engineer at Columbia, tested the camera with children in Japan, India, Vietnam, and at home in New York.
The students were taught how to assemble the camera and were given the opportunity to take their own photos.
“Some of the kids we tested the camera with had never had access to a digital camera before,” Smith said. “Seeing the kids figure out the camera so quickly and be so excited about it was pretty awesome.”
“Believe it or not, the kids actually took some amazing photos,” he said.
Now that the camera kits are available for sale, Nayar’s team plans to give them to as many students as possible.
“I’m going to let this one play out,” Nayar said. “Right now, I’m focused on getting Bigshot into the hands of kids. That’s my number-one goal.”
“And if grown-ups want to play with it, that’s great,” he added.