Virginia Commonwealth University

Make it real.


Students from VCU’s da Vinci Center draw a crowd with innovative exhibit


Thirty-three Chilean miners are trapped approximately 2,500 feet underground.

They are receiving food, water and other essentials through a 4-inch supply pipe.

Tell their story.

Interpret it so that our guests can appreciate the science, the technology and the human interest.

Here’s $500 for materials.

You’ve got 24 hours.

It starts now.

And so began a largely sleepless, pressure-packed marathon for six students from VCU’s da Vinci Center for Innovation at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Even before the deadline at 4 p.m. this past Saturday, Science Museum Director Richard Conti declared the project a success as museum visitors – especially children – began drifting toward the dark, foreboding shaft that sprouted from the museum’s floor.  

“Awesome,” said 10-year-old Michael Kahn, son of Kenneth Kahn, Ph.D., director of the da Vinci Center, evaluating the project through the eyes of an elementary school student.

Conti expects the same reaction from most who view the plywood shaft, which is surrounded by gray boulders made from newspapers and spray paint.

Kahn said the shaft, approximately 4 feet by 4 feet, represents the incredibly small living space available to each Chilean miner. The miners have been trapped underground since an Aug. 5 mine collapse, and feverish efforts are under way to rescue them.

Nelofar Anwari, a marketing major in the VCU School of Business, said the da Vinci team had a target audience of children for their project.

“Kids learn more by interacting with what they have, by touching it and feeling it,” she said. “We wanted them to know what it feels like to be in a mine.”

Kahn said that creating the project was an exercise in team-building with a creative twist.

“We wanted something that would provide a sense of urgency and put students in a situation in which they would have to innovate in a quick time,” he said.

The da Vinci team included School of Business students such as Anwari, students from the School of the Arts and students with blended backgrounds that included engineering.

All contributed skills acquired both from their majors and from life experiences.

Vinita Phonseya, an interior design major, created the layout for the structure.

That followed a team brainstorming session to identify what their project would be and the elements that would attract the largest number of visitors.

Phonseya and Cosima Storz, a painting and printmaking major, supervised other team members in cutting boards to frame the shaft.

Marketing major Megan Jacobs helped create the timeline that would inform museum visitors about the miners’ ordeal. But because she was a former art student, she also stepped in to do some spray painting.

“It was kind of interesting to see what roles people were playing outside their majors,” Jacobs said, noting that she and others pitched in to help Corey Grunewald,  a kinetic imaging major, who led the team in developing the exhibit’s graphics.

Colin Hannifin, an accounting major, reiterated Jacobs’ point that a team member’s major wasn’t the critical factor in his or her contributions.

“We all have skill sets,” Hannifin said. “Some of us are really good at woodworking, some of us are really good at designing, some at imaging, some critical thinking. All of our sets combined to make this project succeed the way it has,” he said.

Most of the daVinci team members slept only an hour or two during the 24-hour project; and Hannifin and Grunewald pulled all-nighters.

The daVinci Center hopes to start every forthcoming semester with a project like the mine shaft that combines teamwork, innovation, a tight time frame and a surprise assignment with real-world relevance.

“It’s been a great 24 hours,” Kahn said, as he and the team searched for another boost of caffeine.