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BW engineering majors unite with community to develop assistive technology equipment

From idea to ingenuity to invention, engineering students are partnering with community members to develop a new sit-to-stand walker that can boost mobility for individuals needing accommodation.

photo of engineering student on a computer working on designing a walker

The initiative is an interdisciplinary collaboration between engineering and communication sciences and disorders.

"When I learned I was teaching this year's engineering capstone course, I knew I wanted to do a community-involved project focused on assistive and adaptive technology," said associate professor of engineering Dr. Jeff Dusek.

"Professor Christie Needham, who is clinic director for the BW Speech Clinic, and I came up with a collaboration that would unite my students with members of their Way with Words group, which consists of individuals recovering from a stroke who receive services at the BW Speech Clinic.

"Working with real users is essential to good engineering design. This is especially true in the assistive technology field where users have incredible expertise into the use of adaptive devices," noted Dusek.

"The design requirements for the sit-to-stand walker prototype came directly from conversations the students had with Way with Words users, their partners and personal care assistants," he went on to say. "The student team met with users throughout the fall semester to present ideas, co-design prototype solutions and discuss ways to improve the model.

"Because mobility limitations are highly individualized, it can be challenging to develop universal solutions with a broad customer base. The economics are further complicated by the role of insurance providers and the income inequality of individuals needing such a device," he said.

Engineering endeavor that could change lives

Cooper Harestad, a senior engineering student from Vandalia, Ohio, was one of the students in the capstone class. He described the initial and ongoing brainstorming sessions for the sit-to-stand walker as being rewarding opportunities for the students to apply their technical, creative and problem-solving skills to a real-world challenge.

photo of two engineering students working on a walker

"Our prototype is a walker that can assist users in standing up from a seated position, which is important in helping individuals maintain independence wherever they go. I love the personal aspect of this project because we gain a connection with the users. It is wonderful to see how happy our walker design makes them," remarked Harestad.

Drew Levis agrees. The senior engineering major from Elyria, Ohio, believes the opportunity has given him experience in how companies approach product development. He went on to say that "working with the community on this project has been super fulfilling in knowing this walker could change the lives of people."

Needham, who sees student interaction with community clients daily through the BW Speech Clinic, believes connecting students to real-world learning experiences and people is essential to professional growth.

"We are preparing students to work in careers where they will be reliant on others for information and solutions. By practicing these skills in the education setting, students can graduate ready to work in diverse and changing workplaces," she explained. "By collaborating with individuals in the community and learning to listen, students form relationships. They start to see problems as opportunities. This enables their work to take on new purpose."

Career-ready engineering major with flexibility

According to Dusek, BW's engineering major provides outstanding learning opportunities. The broad-based program, he said, provides flexibility that enables students to pursue an area of interest and gain valuable career-ready skills.

"Because we are a small program, our curriculum can be highly responsive to the needs of both our students and industry employers. We have evolved our curriculum to better support students with their transition from high school to college. The department also relies on the feedback from our exceptional Engineering Advisory Board, which consists of working professionals in the field, to make sure our graduates are career-ready," emphasized Dusek.

Dusek went on to say that BW engineering faculty offer highly individualized support to students. "Our class sizes are small, which enables multiple opportunities for hands-on learning and plentiful individualized instructor feedback. Our engineering faculty is passionate about providing the best preparation possible to our students."

A sneak-peek at the walker

Though it is still in development, the sit-to-stand walker offers multiple benefits. It utilizes lifting mechanisms to provide an upward force to assist users while standing up. The upward force, resulting from actuators, is a substitution for the assistance provided by another person (which most often occurs when a standing person provides an arm to help lift a mobility-challenged individual out of their seat).

Characteristics that make the walker special:

  • Lightweight/collapsible - which makes the walker easy to transport and use regardless of where the user goes. The walker will collapse the same way a normal walker would, making it easier to get in and out of the user's vehicle.

  • Adjustable - height can be adjusted based on the user's physical traits.

  • Independent use - users can stand up without needing assistance from another person. Users gain total independence without the worry of being unable to stand up if they go somewhere alone.

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