1998 Conference Proceedings

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Assistant Professor Melinda J. Piket-May
Associate Professor James P.Avery
Electrical and Computer Engineering Department
University of Colorado
Boulder, CO 80309-0425
voice: 303-492-7448
fax: 303-492-2758
Email: mjp@colorado.edu 


The main goal of this paper is to describe an educational/community program in assistive technology. The program has been successful and we would like to expand it locally as well as export it to other locations. Persons with disabilities are direct beneficiaries of this program and university engineering students happen learn about engineering design in the process. It is truly a win-win situation. An important aspect of this program is the connection our engineering students make with persons with disabilities.

Often persons with disabilities are invisible to the general population. This class makes them real people, and this is knowledge all of our students will carry with them through their lives. This is an immeasurable benefit that I suspect will have far more long-range effects than the direct benefits of the program.

This project grew out of discussions about the availability of assistive technology devices. A psychologist, a sociologist, and a special education teacher helped engineers develop this course. The idea behind the program is that engineering students have to take design labs. Their designs are often thrown out at the end of the semester. Why not have the student?s design people specific devices that happen to be in the area of assistive technology and then give the project to the person it was designed for instead of throwing it away.

Our program is making a real and immediate significant impact on persons with disabilities and we can expand this program to impact a larger segment of the population. The purpose of this paper is to encourage people who can identify assistive technology needs to outreach to their local schools and universities who may be able to provide the assistive technology resource and benefit their students as well. We will describe our program and suggest ways for you to find a local resource.


The course described in this paper operates as a part of the Integrated Teaching Laboratory (ITL), a pioneering multidisciplinary learning environment in the University of Colorado's College of Engineering and Applied Science, that integrates engineering theory with real life current engineering design problems. One important component of the ITL is the design-oriented first year project course. The course promotes creative, team-oriented design experiences, which have a direct positive impact on the local community. This paper describes a version of the first year project course focused on the area of assistive technology. The authors of this paper are teaching the assistive technology sections of this lab. The projects used in the course are selected in consultation with the community groups who have assistive technology needs but lack the resources to develop solutions. Both semesters we have run this course section we have designed projects for minority students, often with parents who do not speak English. We did not seek these projects out specifically for minorities, but have found a need in this area.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 officially defines assistive technology as "...any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities." Assistive technology is an area of growing interest in today?s world. In practical terms, assistive technology helps people with disabilities perform simple or challenging tasks more efficiently, allowing them more independence and enriching their lives. It can be thought of as a substitute function for the individual, enabling participation in activities that would otherwise be inaccessible. It improves the individuals' ability to learn, compete, work, and interact with family and friends. People may be born disabled or become disabled due to age, illness or accident. A large percentage of our population are affected by disabilities, either personally or through contact with people with disabilities. Our initial target community is grade school age individuals. The impact on the community is immediate and direct. The potential exists for very significant changes in the ability of the client to interact with the world.

The first year projects course allows the university to provide the student resources needed to do the design work for community oriented projects. Our course in assistive technology design is an excellent opportunity for students to begin learning what design and engineering are about in a way that benefits the local community as well. The technological projects tied to assistive technology often are very unique to an individual. The project class environment is ideal for this type of one-of-a-kind development. The projects also span a wide range of complexity. Technology near the cutting edge of engineering design is important to assistive technology, but simple technology is often more effective and more accessible to the people who will use it.

Our course uses whatever level of technology is appropriate. The material cost of the project is funded through a class fee. The students are not required to buy a book for this class but they are expected to donate $50 a piece toward their project. With teams of 4-5 people this gives them a budget of $200-$250 per project. This is an ample amount of money to do a solid design. This semester we have approximately 60 students in the lab. This translates to a potential of $3000 being donated to the community for assistive technology projects. And that is just the dollar figure, it does not take into account the thousands of students hours spent on the design and packaging of the product. With proper community outreach, community needs will provide a constant supply of relevant new design projects. The resulting devices will be immediately used and appreciated by the individuals with special needs.

The course is an excellent example of how a university can support the needs of the community. Our course has already had significant impact on relations between the University and the local community. The assistive technology area is expanding quickly, and many institutions will be interested in offering courses in the area. As our course in assistive technology matures, we will be able to export our course and techniques to other universities. Students in the course decide on specific design projects necessary for a specific client?s need. The goal is to take a project to completion, so that the completed article can be given to the client. We require significant input from the client on the issues that define the design. The students are required to identify the problem they wish to solve; evaluate potential designs that solve the problem, taking into account many supporting issues such as client capabilities, limitations, and interests; do financial analysis and feasibility studies on the design choices; develop a final design specification; and finally complete the project. We are currently working primarily with the communication specialists and occupational therapists in the Boulder public schools. They have given us very positive feedback on their involvement, which has already gone significantly beyond providing us with projects. For example, when appropriate, the engineering students have been invited into inclusive classrooms in order to work with their clients in the clients' environment.

What we describe here is the outline for the lab as well as ideas for future growth. This design course has been initially targeted for the first year projects course, but will grow to include a senior capstone design course as well. It should also be possible to create design teams with members from the first year through senior classes. Such teams would be an excellent training ground for our students, who, when they enter the real work world, will often be working on design teams with co-workers at many different levels. This will also allow for more complex design projects.

Course outline: The course is a specialization of the standard version of the First year Projects Course [1]. The specific course elements include the following: Team building and communications: Exercises help the students to understand how they function as a team, to understand the different strengths and weaknesses of the individual team members, and to see how quality improves when collaborative team work is done. These skills help our students to communicate with the contacts and clients more effectively. Open ended design project: This section is the assistive technology design project. Before the course begins a lot of work has already been done. We are on a tight time schedule. This is great for the clients because it provides a reasonable turn around time for their projects. This is difficult for the design team because as of yet we have not found an effective way to coordinate the contact and student schedules to facilitate the first meeting. Valuable design time is often lost playing phone tag. We have simple paper applications. They ask for client, contact, description of client, clients needs to be met with the assistive technology device. We do ask for suggested designs, but it is important to not limit the student?s creative designs. The students come up with exciting new concepts based on the client?s goals. The client gets a well thought out design based on their needs instead of based on what is available in a catalog. Reverse engineering project: This section is used to reverse engineer, fix, and improve assistive technology devices that our clients already have. Students prepare and present a poster on their projects. The fixed or improved device is returned to the client. Assistive technology lectures: These include lectures on types of disabilities, societal issues, current technology, legal aspects, and future technology.

Other experiences that are particular to our class include the following activities. Experiential learning: The individual team members take turns being disabled for a specific lab period. For instance we might have a "blind" student working in each group one day by blindfolding a member of the team. Other students might become "hearing impaired" or "deaf" by using earplugs, or have their mobility or dexterity restricted. These exercises help the students become more aware of issues relating to these special problems. Journal keeping: The students are required to keep a log of their activities and their ideas related to this class. We provide a sample set of questions to help the students get started; however the students are free to use any format with which they are comfortable. Preferably they jot down notes as they occur and then do a summary at the end of the week. Potential questions to ponder are:

Bi-weekly observations: These observations are one page essays on something related to assistive technology that the students have observed in their everyday life, what their feelings were about it, and what ideas they have to improve or change it if it is a problem, or how to expand it if it is a good thing. The observations could be as simple as, "I noticed that if I was in a wheelchair I couldn't go to my class the way I normally do because... However I did discover an alternate route that provided a way that is OK," or "My alternate route needs to be improved because it takes at least twice as long as my normal route," or "I read an article in the paper that made me really think about... "The observations are often very telling.

Grading: The grades are based both on individual and group work. Individual efforts include oral presentations, class participation, journals, summaries of guest lectures, observations, peer evaluation, and participation in the assistive technology lectures. Group efforts include the mystery artifact report, the design project report, and the reverse engineering poster.


Students worked in groups of four to six. It is the nature of the field of assistive technology that devices need to be tailored to the individual. The following projects clearly demonstrate this close interaction between the client and the design team.

Wheel Chair Tray

One client needed a folding tray attached to her wheel chair with some specific size, weight and portability characteristics. The design team built foam-board mock-ups, and finally built a satisfactory unit for the client. We have been informed there are orders for more should we wish to get involved in manufacturing.

Two Axis Swat Switch

A preschool client?s teacher needed a swat switch that could be sensitized for certain directions only. No commercially available device fit the specifications. The design team was completely successful in implementing a device with which both teacher and client are pleased. This is a minority student.

Communications Board

The objective of this project was to produce a low-cost device that could easily be programmed with eight to twelve phrases that would be played back when the appropriate picture button was pressed. The client is a pre-school student who is unable to speak. The team decided to use the innards of Hallmark "talking greeting cards". This design project was a success.

Sound Level Meter

The client for this project is pre-school girl with very mild cerebral palsy. She needs training in speaking loudly enough to be heard. The project team designed and manufactured a sound operated fan that drives a ping-pong ball up a tube in response to the sound level. This intriguing ping-pong ball system with a neon striped ball and a Lion King designed base was a brainstorm of the student design team. This project was a great success. All of the children in the classroom enjoy the ?toy?. The little girl it was designed for is meeting the goals the teacher set up for her. Another little boy who had never spoken before speaks to the toy because he likes to see the ball move, and even more remarkable, a little boy who had never had any voluntary vocalization before is now vocalizing to make the ball move. This is a clear example where a design for a specific client is useful and had unexpected positive impact on other students.

How Can I do This?

We encourage you to take aspects of this paper to your local resources. Community colleges, universities, and even high schools probably have courses that could tackle assistive technology projects as part of the learning environment. You might look for a local engineering group or student group to sponsor the projects and provide some technical support to the design students. The scary part of these projects to instructors is that the designs are open ended. However the open ended designs are an extremely valuable teaching tool and you can probably find someone to take on the challenge. We would be happy to work with instructors at other schools to answer questions and assist them in implementing this type of course. The course can be modified and augmented in a number of ways. Be creative! If money is an issue look for local suppliers to donate materials and look for local organizations to provide sponsorships. Maybe the students in high school could even do a fund raiser for this project. Perhaps it could even be an after school group activity. We believe that the school/community cooperation demonstrated in the class will serve as a useful model for other interactions at the University of Colorado, as well as at other institutions nationwide.

We have a web site set up at http://maori.colorado.edu/~geen1400 and you can also email the authors at the email address in the paper header. Good Luck!


Piket-May, M., Avery, J.P., "Results of Client-Based Freshman Design Projects", on CDROM, Session F1F, 5 pages, Proceedings of the 1997 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, November 1997, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, IEEE.

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