Ordinarily, it takes years before the work of scientists and engineers make an impact on the lives of everyday people in their community. But for some students of engineering at the University of Kansas, the satisfaction of helping others is happening today.
Thanks to a $125,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Ken Fischer, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is leading his students in a capstone design/build project to provide Kansans living with disabilities custom-designed assistive devices, such as mobility or communication aids, to improve their quality of life.
"Students spend a full academic year working on design and fabrication and testing of a prototype that's somehow related to biomechanics," said Fischer. "In many cases, it's an assistive device for someone with a physical disability. The NSF provides us resources to do these projects without any cost to the beneficiary."
Called the Biomechanical Rehabilitation Engineering Advancement in Kansas program, or BREAK, the effort will pair students with Kansans living with disabilities in order to customize devices to have maximum positive effect in the lives of the recipients.
"The students learn to see the person with the disability as a person, and respect them where they're at, and get experience dealing with somebody who may have different abilities than their own, but who nonetheless have aspirations to accomplish great things," Fischer said. "I think that's part of the sense of satisfaction that the students receive. They provide people with a tool they need to be more successful."
Working with organizations such as KU's Beach Center on Disability and Lawrence-based Independence Inc., the students design customized equipment after a series of consultations with a client, developing specifications according to the customer's requirements, and testing designs against those specifications. Ultimately, the response of the beneficiary determines the success of the device.
"In some cases we're developing an assistive device for a person that has a very specific need," Fischer said. "For instance, we did a project for a young woman in the Wichita area who is living with cerebral palsy and was looking for a way to do upper-extremity and lower-extremity exercise in an inexpensive system. She was very excited to receive and use the exercise equipment."
In other cases, students with the BREAK project might design and fabricate equipment for an organization that works with people living with disabilities. One such recent project involved building a customized assistive device that made moving heavy equipment easier at Independence Inc., where a number of employees have physical disabilities.
While the marketplace for assistive devices is constrained, Fischer said that some of the technology developed in the BREAK program could hold the potential for commercialization, with students retaining the intellectual property rights to their designs. Likewise, some designs may be offered to the public for free.
"Some of these assistive devices may have commercial potential—many of them could be commercialized," said the KU researcher. "We hope to take really good examples of technology and try to move them forward to help other people. One of the problems with assistive devices is that the market is rather small compared to the general population of the U.S. If there's a really good design that could help people but isn't commercializable, another option is to release that design to the public domain and allow other people to build the students' design without cost."
In the final analysis, however, an assistive device will be evaluated by how much it improves the life of its recipient.
"The most important aspect of success is how well the person receives and responds to the assistive device that's been developed," Fischer said.
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