Local high school students take on assistive technology design challenge

May 25, 2012
students cut pvc pipe

By Storee Powell

No two design problems are the same in assistive technology, and there's an infinite amount of work to be done in the field.

This  was one thing high school students said they learned Saturday while building a prototype of a design challenge at the Utah Assistive Technology Lab on the Utah State University campus.

The students, who were from Wasatch Front high schools, were participating in a study being conducted by USU's Dr. Amy Alexander Wilson from the College of Education, and Dr. Dan Householder from USU's engineering college. The study is part of a grant received from the National Science Foundation. 

The study is to learn how students approach a design problem.

"Saturday allowed the students to build a prototype of their design that was based on a real problem for a client of the AT Lab. We are finding in our research that if the topic is of interest to the students personally, they handle the design process better," Householder said.

When the students were interviewed before the project began, they told Householder and Wilson they wanted to build a device that would assist an individual. Their ideas fell into the engineering category of assistive technology, which is defined as any item that is used to improve quality of life and increase  independence for individuals with disabilities.

Wilson and Householder approached the lab to see if having the students work on a real problem for a client of the AT Lab was a possibility. The goal of the Utah Assistive Technology Program, which oversees the AT Lab, is not only to assist Utahns with disabilities obtain and use assistive technology but to teach professionals and students about assistive technology and its impact on individuals. 

students plan their design

One student said, "Learning about assistive technology took engineering out of the classroom, and I learned about real life situations - how I can apply it to an actual career.  I like that this aspect of engineering was really helping people."

The design challenge proposed by the AT Lab was a bathing transfer system that would help a young man in Ogden who has muscular dystrophy. Clay Christensen, AT Lab coordinator, had built an earlier prototype, but needed to refine the frame. (The device includes a part that is similar to a cot on a support system. Once the device is slid into the bath area, it straddles the tub.)

"This was the perfect opportunity. We were able to improve this device for our client and I was able to see how someone else approached this design problem," Christensen said.

Christensen oversaw the project building and helped teach students about assistive technology. The students learned a few things during their time at the lab, like how to cut the PVC pipe used to build the bathing transfer device. PVC was a good material because it was lightweight, could handle moisture and would fit in the available space.

After the building the device, another student realized assistive technology engineering might be the field for him. "I've always wanted to go into field work and help people like my parents do, who are doctors, but I didn't want to go into the medical field. This project has shown me I can help people through engineering."

The design created by the students will be catalogued by the AT Lab in case there is another client in the future with a similar need.  UATP is now seeking a patent.

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