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Engineering for a Cause

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

LOWELL- Tracey Ruth, an intensive special education teacher at Lowell High School, knows of a certain student who is not only deaf, but is what education professionals would call a "passive learner."

But thanks to some recent teamwork between the high school, the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Analog Devices Inc., that girl became one of many special needs students at Lowell High that benefited from a UMass Lowell senior engineering project to create stimulative toys.

In the case of the passive learner, an electrical engineering degree candidate developed a light-activated car that is activated by shining a flashlight on it, Ruth said.

"When the car was brought in, our student simply picked up the flashlight and began using the car," she said. "We didn't have to encourage her, or model the appropriate behavior. The student was so excited about using this device, that for the first time, she initiated an activity on her own."

The toy was the product of a collaborative effort between the special education staff at Lowell High School and the electrical engineering department at UMass Lowell, resulting in the delivery of new learning tools for some of the high school's most developmentally challenged students.

Ruth said the devices will be used in two classrooms containing developmentally and intellectually challenged students.

"Because of their challenges, many of these students are not typically exposed to leisure activities," she said. "They don't often get a chance to play in a way that is meaningful for them. But they can learn and develop through the stimulation of their senses by light or sound."

While there are commercial learning tools and devices available for students with the most intensive special needs, many provide only visual or auditory stimulation, Ruth explained. What they don't often offer, she said, is the element most important to learning interactivity. Furthermore, such devices are often prohibitively expensive.

Last year, Lowell High's intensive special needs students had to share three learning devices that were far more generic, Ruth said.

Besides the light-activated car, this year's products also include an "LED Catherine Wheel." It's a device made up of bright, differently colored lights and a series of switches. A learner pushes one switch and the lights flash in a specific sequence. If a different switch is pressed, the lights go off in a different sequence. Through exploration, recognition and repetition, the learner begins to understand how to trigger the specific sequence they're looking for.

Adjunct Professor Walter McGuire, a product development engineer at Analog Devices, instructs one of three so-called "Capstone Projects." The course, required of all senior electrical engineering majors, requires them to demonstrate their discipline and skills in a real-world project that involves research, design and development.

"We ask senior students to use their skills and knowledge to solve critical problems for those that may be developmentally or physically challenged," McGuire said.

Professor Donn Clark, a founder of the Capstone Project, said when engineering students were previously required to design and produce an electrical device, "they'd all go out and design a better stereo, or a bigger, more powerful amplifier."

"They'd take on a project that had some interest for them," he said. "And after they completed it, it would sit on the shelf and collect dust."

That began to change about 12 years ago, Clark recalled, when a couple of students ended up designing and building a pinball machine for a quadriplegic child. The two students then went out and spent time with the child.

"They learned about his abilities and about his challenges," Clark said. "Their first design efforts weren't successful. So they tried again, and continued working with the youngster. The end of the semester came around, and, frankly, the project ended badly. The device still didn't work. But the two students got their credits and went on to graduate."

But that wasn't the end of the story, Clark said.

"The summer after graduation was a hot one," he recalled. "The engineering lab was like an oven. Strangely, even though these two students had graduated, and despite the tortuous working conditions, they came back. They kept working on the pinball device. They finished building it. They made it work and turned it over to the child.

"I watched them and I realized they weren't working this hard for a grade, or to graduate. There was no money in it. I realized that they were doing it because they had made a personal commitment to the challenged kid."

It was at that moment that Clark realized that he had discovered a source of motivation for students. "I decided not to assign another senior project that does not have at its heart the idea of helping someone in need," he said.

The program is funded by the National Science Foundation, as well as corporate and private donors and by alumni endowment. According to McGuire, it has benefited such clients as the Perkins School for the Blind and the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health.

McGuire's employer, Analog Devices, has 11 engineers on standby to help students with these and other engineering projects. The company has also provided financial support to the school in helping to fund its laboratories. Engineers at the high-tech manufacturer volunteer to mentor students in the Assistive Technology Program.

"Our engineering students end their college career with some wonderful experiences, and some wonderful stories to tell," Clark said. "A student typically doesn't get this kind of learning experience in a standard engineering curriculum."