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Future Shock

Assistive Technology U: Breaking Down Barriers for the Disabled

University Business, Apr 2009

What’s hot for today’s engineering students? What’s really hot is the emerging field of assistive technologies. Combining professional career fields like robotics, electrical and mechanical engineering, computer science, and occupational health, a new breed of polytechnic programs are serving up state-of-the-art, adaptive technology courses for civically engaged engineering students who want to make the world a better place for the disabled. Perhaps a best-kept secret, this human dimension thrives at such venerable engineering universities as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, UMass Lowell, the University of Minnesota, MIT, and the University of Michigan.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute has led by example in creating transformative teaching and service learning experiences for engineering students. WPI adaptive technology student projects include designing such remarkably inventive devices as modifying a harness for a woman with multiple sclerosis to help walk her dog, and creating an elevating leg rest for those clients who are wheelchair bound.

At WPI, faculty and students make interdisciplinary connections with the allied disciplines of health science, technology, and physical and occupational therapy. WPI mechanical engineering professor Allen Hoffman notes the lasting impact the program has on students. “Many of those who go on to traditional engineering jobs stay connected to community service through volunteering," Hoffman says. "However some of our students have made a career out of it and have gone on to focus on engineering and disability work.”

William Wulf, former president of the National Academy of Engineering, notes on WPI’s website this “kind of engineering education at WPI is a model of what engineering education should be.” Down the road, WPI’s prototype models have the ability to be commercially manufactured on a way larger scale for the consumer public.

For 20 years, engineering students in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at UMass Lowell (UML) have been filling the gap in commercially available assistive technologies needed to help folks with disabilities. Significantly, the UML program encourages engineering students to become uniquely aware of their ability to improve the lives of disabled clients beyond the classroom. Kiersten Lemoine, a UML electrical engineering graduate student, says, “The projects give students the experience to know they can make a difference, even for just one person.”

UML Professor Craig Armiento adds, “Disabled clients are able to figure out what they can do once they are able to interface with a computer. And once they do that they can interface with the world.” In UML’s news, engineering dean John Ting has summed up the departments initiative’s best by stating, “Many people don’t understand that engineering is a people-helping and creative profession. It makes a real difference in people’s lives.”

UML’s emphasis on community engagement has been recognized by the Carnegie Foundation designation of “community-engaged university”—and the Assistive Technology Program is reportedly one of the top reasons the university has received the honor. In UML’s news, Chancellor Marty Meehan proudly notes, “UMass Lowell has a long history of innovative partnerships that have benefited the people in our region as well as our students.”

At MIT, assistive technology embraces several engineering disciplines including computer science, media lab, age lab, and mechanical engineering. Seth Teller, MIT professor of computer science and engineering, tells of a project at the Boston Home, an assisted living facility for people with multiple sclerosis. The end results of the partnership includes a robotic wheelchair that memorizes the layout of assisted living center, and a device that helps clients identify where their friends are within the large center. Teller says communication is the key to identifying problems and solutions. He also stresses that “a critical piece to student education here is to engage with real user populations.”

On the cutting edge of technology, mechanical engineering students at the University of Minnesota are creating a computer simulation program to aid in developing prototypes for assisted technology design. This high-tech tool allows students to interact with their product, observe a simulation and improve it for use by their clients. Other projects within the department focus on helping people paralyzed from spinal cord injuries walk with a specialized leg brace-a device that stimulates paralyzed muscles electrically.

The University of Michigan is also a leader. One of the primary areas of research is the Direct Brain Interface Project, which focuses on the use of technology within the human brain. The goal is to produce assistive technology that can be clinically available and that is most effective, and supportive for individuals with physical impairments.

Believe it or not, today’s engineering students are actually designing cool stuff like voice-activated control centers, digital talking photo frames and customized iPods-devices that have a life-changing impact on their clients. Importantly, these assistive learning programs provide a somewhat unique teachable moment for engineering students---who dare to think outside the geekbox---real students creating real engineering solutions for real people with profound disabilities.

For decades, WPI, UML, Minnesota, MIT, and Michigan faculty have blue printed service learning experiences for their best and brightest engineering students-and is so doing this students are breaking down barriers for the disabled.

James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.