Amanda Stahler designed a woman's opportunity center for use by communities in Rwanda. Courtesy photo.

While the senior project is a mandatory capstone of a Cal Poly degree, there is a lot of versatility in what can be considered a senior project. Presentations, research papers and experiments are all fair game, but so are building designs in Rwanda and film festivals downtown. Here’s a spotlight on four graduating seniors who took a new approach to this Cal Poly requirement.

Women’s opportunity center in Rwanda

Architecture senior Amanda Stahler went a lot farther than Kennedy library to complete her senior thesis; she traveled over 9,000 miles to the East African country of Rwanda. Stahler worked with the San Luis Obispo non-profit design firm, Journeyman International, to design a women’s opportunity center for the neighboring villages of Ntunga and Rubona.

Stahler designed a woman’s opportunity center in Rwanda, which will actually be built, for her project. Ashley Ladin | Mustang News.
Stahler designed a woman’s opportunity center in Rwanda, which will actually be built, for her project. Ashley Ladin | Mustang News.

The site, which is currently securing funding with the help of Empowering Villages, HeForShe and local Rwandan organizations, will primarily be used by a women’s sewing cooperative and a women’s mango and pineapple harvesting cooperative. Stahler designed four buildings which incorporate a working space, storefront to sell goods, wash area, emergency housing space and library. Much of the space is multi-use and can be adjusted to the community’s needs.

After creating rough plans for the site, she visited Rwanda over winter break to speak with the women in the cooperatives and alter the design based on their feedback.

“The most rewarding part was speaking with the women — having a translator with us — and literally showing them my designs to be like what do you want,” Stahler said. “Asking them what they want specifically, what they need, because I feel like that is not something they get a lot. They were so excited that someone was caring about what they wanted.”

Stahler’s design is open and well-lit, a change from the women’s current working space, a small concrete room with poor ventilation. Much of the design uses small details to bring impact, such as specific brick design which easily fits benches and roofs which utilize rainwater catchment to store water for use when municipal lines run low during dry season.

Currently, Stahler is working on turning the design from the artistic work she showcased during the fifth-year architecture show into design documents to be approved by multiple architects before being given to architects in Rwanda. Journeyman International plans to hire local people, including some of the women from the cooperatives, to work on the construction. Stahler hopes to go back to Rwanda to oversee some of the progress once construction starts, which was originally planned to start this summer but has since been pushed back.

For now, Stahler will be working at the architectural firm Fergus Garber Young after graduating, helping with residential design. In the future, she hopes to start her own firm to balance humanitarian work with profitable work.

Human library

English senior Jeanne Bay believes stories can bring people together. Identifying a need for a greater sense of community at Cal Poly, she decided to bring The Human Library to campus. The Human Library event, which is run through the international Human Library organization, invites attendees to act as “readers” and listen to human “books” tell their life stories.

Jeanne Bay brought The Human Library to Cal Poly, and will help bring the event to eBay’s headquarters this summer. Ashley Ladin | Mustang News.
Jeanne Bay brought The Human Library to Cal Poly, and will help bring the event to eBay’s headquarters this summer. Ashley Ladin | Mustang News.

“The Human Library essentially breaks down stereotypes through thoughtful dialogue,” Bay said. “It uses face-to-face interaction, active questioning and empathy.”

While Human Library events are held across the world, Bay was the first person to bring the event to Cal Poly. She recruited 20 students to volunteer as books and worked with them one-on-one to help identify and meaningfully express the story they wanted to tell during the event.

The May 15, had over 60 reader attendees who participated in five rounds of reading. During the first four rounds, one to three attendees were randomly assigned a book to speak with, but during the last round attendees were allowed to choose which book they wanted to speak with. The books talked on a multitude of life experiences, including being a person of color on a predominantly white campus and growing up in a poor, gang neighborhood.

Bay had to balance opening the event up to the community and protecting the books from what she considers a currently toxic campus climate. She decided not to advertise the event at large, instead inviting select organizations and letting the news spread through word of mouth. Next year, she hopes someone else will decide to carry out the event again and reach a larger crowd.

“My main goal was for people to gain empathy for each other and be able to listen — with our current campus climate I feel like people don’t want conversations anymore,” Bay said. “It was amazing to look into a room and see people from all different backgrounds at Cal Poly literally leaning in to talk to one another.”

The chief operating officer of eBay attended the event and was impressed with Bay’s work. He is holding a Human Library event at eBay’s headquarters during July and asked Bay to help with planning. Several Cal Poly students in the event were also invited to come up and serve as books for the eBay team.

Galaxies and black holes in virtual reality

Computer science senior Ashley Dattalo likes to explore the intersections of computer science and physics, but she doesn’t like to be limited by a 2D screen. After talking with a professor who had created text files of galaxy simulations, she decided to expand upon her professor’s galaxy codes to create a way to interact with the galaxies in a virtual reality simulation.

Ashley Dattalo combined her interest in computer science and physics to create virtual reality galaxy environments. Ashley Ladin | Mustang News.

“It’s fun because the application lets you create something out of nothing,” Dattalo said. “Almost like playing god and creating stars.”

Dattalo created a simulation which allows users to add black holes and stars to a galaxy using Unity, a 3D virtual reality (VR) rendering application. Users can see how the added elements affect the space to understand and experience Newton’s laws of gravity.

“Humans are visual learners, so conceptually, just watching two stars interact with each other is going to be easier to understand than looking at equations and plotting it in their head,” Dattalo said. “If they can visually see it it’s easier to think, oh yeah, thats how that works.”

Dattalo’s VR application, which uses the Oculus Rift headset and controllers, allows the user to pick between five preset galaxy conditions. Once in a galaxy condition, the user will see two galaxy collide, causing the stars which make up the galaxies to disperse. Then, the controllers can be used to draw a trail of stars or add in black holes, which will immediately start to affect the surrounding environment. There is also an option to pause the simulation, which allows users to draw complex star designs before resuming the application and observing the star design morph and disperse.

“My favorite part of this project has actually just been using it after I created it. I’ve spent probably hours watching the simulations and placing black holes in interesting places to see if it causes the stars to make cool effects,” Dattalo said.

Dattalo is considering adding the application to Steam, an online store that includes VR content, but needs to refine the application before making it widely available. After graduation, she will be interning at Microsoft and plans to continue creating VR content.

Film festival showcasing young artists

Journalism senior Michael Frank describes his senior project as a passion project. Even though he considers himself more of a writer than a filmmaker, he has always loved cinema. After seeing his friends create short films in a class last year and become excited to share them, he decided there needed to be a larger platform to highlight young filmmakers.

Michael Frank put on a film festival to showcase young artists for his senior project. Ashley Ladin | Mustang News.

Frank created 25 under 25, a two-day film festival in the Palm Theatre May 19-20. The festival showcased 25 short films, under 25 minutes, all created by filmmakers younger than 25.

Any California resident or student between the ages of 18 and 25 was eligible to apply. Frank called every college in California to explain the festival and encourage applications. In total, Frank received 175 film submissions and recruited a group of 30 judges, which consisted of community members, students and professors, to watch through the films and select the top 25 to showcase.

Almost all of the chosen filmmakers were able to travel down and attend the festival. After speaking with Frank through email, they were surprised to meet him in person.

“The event was completely put on by and completely showcased young people — which is wild,” Frank said. “When the filmmakers showed up, they thought I was going to be like 50 years old. They were shocked I was also in college. And then you go see the films and they look professional, but they’re all made by people between 18 and 24.”

Frank wanted to create a community of young filmmakers in addition to showcasing their work, so he funded money to rent out the KOA cabins in Avila Beach for the filmmakers to stay in together over the festival weekend.

“We wanted to create a community of artists that could learn from each other, grow, connect and hopefully work together in the future,” Frank said. “We ate together, went to the sessions together and after the sessions we all hung out and talked about movies, films, passions until like 2 or 3 a.m.”

After securing non-profit status through ARTS Obispo, Frank fundraised $16,000 for the event, which covered the costs of securing the Palm Theatre, renting cabins and the monetary awards given to the top three films. A total of 350 tickets were sold, and any extra profit made from the tickets will be used to help fund the event next year if someone decides to take it over. Frank will be leaving San Luis Obispo and plans to keep communicating and relating to people on the most basic level, something he believes both journalism and films do.

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