Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Give and Take

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Give and Take

Article excerpt

ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY PROGRAM BENEFITS BOTH DISABLED AND STUDENTS WHO DESIGN DEVICES TO HELP THEM

In the 1980s, senior engineering projects at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell tended to involve the students' personal "needs" - a bigger stereo or a better car alarm. Then in the early 1990s a request came from a local hospital to create a sip-and-puff pinball machine for quadriplegic children.

Dr. Donn Clark, who was in charge of the senior "capstone projects," which are required for graduation, leapt at the opportunity to offer students an assistive technology project, having seen enough of their high-powered audio systems. He immediately suggested the project to two students who agreed to do it. One of the hospital's requirements was that they visit the hospital and meet the children who would benefit from their device.

The UMass students were intensely motivated when they interacted with the youngsters. The only problem: They didn't complete the project.

They did graduate, however. Clark thought he would never see them again, and concluded the plan had failed. He was wrong.

"Those students got so upset with themselves because they didn't help those kids, that they came back after graduation and finished the project." Moreover, Clark and his students presented the games to the hospital and watched kids play for the first time. "One of those seniors ended up taking a job with an assistive technology business," Clark says.

That experience convinced Clark to create the Assistive Technology Program at UMass-Lowell, which has received grants totaling $191,000 from the National Science Foundation. They also have an endowment from an alumnus with matching funds from the state totaling $400,000.

"Initially we had to beg, borrow and steal to support it," Clark says, adding that materials were the major expense. "But then we found that local businesses were very willing to support US. Occasionally the companies asked the students to design a device for one of their employees who had been in an accident or for a worker's child."

UMass-Lowell is one of 20 universities with assistive technology programs. Clark, who retired from the faculty this spring but will remain as director of the program for a year, says the students' projects improve the lives of people with various physical and mental challenges. The products range from the simple to the cutting-edge. Alzheimer's patients struggling through the haze of daily living, children with muscular disorders who have never played with toys or games, and spinal injury patients seeking independent lifestyles are among those who have been assisted.

Staff engineer Alan Rux says the projects have become more sophisticated and highly customized over the years. "We're in our second generation of voice-activated wheelchairs, and we're working on some eye-- muscle control [devices]," which allows clients to raise their eyebrows to trigger a scanner to turn on the television or operate appliances.

The students work with the Franciscan Children's Hospital in Boston, modifying. and customizing toys for the patients. They are also involved in a project at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. There, the student-- engineers have inserted sensors in the childrens' shoes to reduce falls and injuries. The sensors cause a vibration when an object is in front of or on the side of the child.

For Walter McGuire, assistive technology was the challenge he was seeking as a graduate student at UMass-Lowell, "but some of the projects seemed a bit repetitive. …

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