Raising Awareness about Turning Down the Volume

Gunter mannequin

Tim Panic, one of the audiology mannequins constructed by UNC students. Related: Photos of other mannequins made by students are at the end of the story.

A group of UNC students and two of their professors are building mannequins to help educate kids about the often-overlooked topic of noise-induced hearing loss and the long-term effects that can come from too much time with the volume up too high on personal music players.

Deanna Meinke and Don Finan, faculty in the Audiology and Speech-Language Sciences program, and members of UNC's Student Academy of Audiology chapter are donating their time to build eight of the unique learning tools for use this fall in 9Health Fair in the Classroom events in elementary, middle and high schools throughout Colorado.

The visually intriguing mannequins, equipped with a sound level meter and a realistic silicone ear in addition to their own unique identity, measure the sound- pressure levels produced by personal music players.

By setting their music players to the volume they normally use and placing their headphones into the mannequin's ears, students will see from the meter if the level at which they listen to music is within a reasonable range. In effect, they can see and hear volume levels that could cause hearing loss over time and learn how to set their players for safe listening levels.

Meinke, ASLS colleague Katie Bright and some audiology students built UNC's first mannequin in 2007 while serving as beta testers of a mannequin-building instruction booklet published by Dangerous Decibels, Oregon Health and Science University's international hearing-loss prevention program.

The mannequin was aptly named Günter in recognition of its "home" (Gunter Hall) and to match its curious appearance (the German pronunciation is Goonter). It still resides in Gunter when it's not traveling with Meinke, who co-teaches two-day Dangerous Decibels educator workshops that help individuals throughout the United States and New Zealand incorporate the program in their schools, workplaces and communities.

Of the six UNC mannequins built after Günter, the second (Nick) is now at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and two others (Tim Panic, for the the tympanic membrane in the ear, and Kallie Bration, as in calibration of the meter is important) were built for the American Academy of Audiology to be used at their conventions.

To Meinke's knowledge, UNC and OHSU were the first two organizations to build "homemade" mannequins. Since then, the OHSU instruction booklet, titled "The Jolene Cookbook" in reference to the name of the first mannequin created in 2006 by an OHSU student, has been downloaded in every U.S. state and 30 countries.

Before Jolene was crafted, acoustic mannequins were unavailable to educate the public unless they had access to a laboratory-grade one used in auditory research.

With fancy microphones and perfectly shaped ears, the commercially produced mannequins were extremely expensive ($20,000) and incredibly clinical-looking. Models copied from the OHSU prototype cost about $150, which includes the sound-level meter, body paint and a shopping trip at Goodwill, and are attention-grabbing.

According to Meinke, the "homemade" mannequins' outlandish appearances are designed to pique students' curiosity enough to test their music players for safe listening levels.

And the more exposure the mannequins get, the more interest they receive, from both students and adults.

"I had Günter sitting in the back of the classroom, and I could see some of the kids turning their heads just enough to get a good look," Meinke said of a visit to a ninth-grade class. "A few were brave enough to come back and test their headphones and by putting their headphones in Günter's ears and looking at a chart they are able to see if their music level was within the safe zone."

Meinke also said that when one of her students took a mannequin to a senior health fair, the seniors couldn't get enough of it.

"They asked questions because they had grandchildren or just because they were interested in the mannequin itself," Meinke said. "The reach level is bigger than we ever would have expected."

For more information about the international hearing-loss prevention initiative that UNC plays a major role in, visit the Dangerous Decibels website.

Learn more about Günter on his Facebook page, and get to know Jolene on hers.

Download "The Jolene Cookbook" to see the recipe for an audiology mannequin.

- Katie Owston, Senior Journalism Major