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One hundred seventy four students from 13 schools, along with their teachers, advisers and friends, packed Costello Gym on a beautiful spring day in May for UMass Lowell’s sixth annual Assistive Technology Design Fair.
A project of the University’s Future Engineers Center, the Design Fair offers students an opportunity to tackle real-world engineering design problems aimed at helping people with disabilities or special needs.
This year saw several outstanding projects. One of them, called the “Lift Assist,” is a modified wheelchair designed by three Dracut High School sophomores for their client, named Matt. In school, Matt was unable to fully participate in various activities due to the fixed height of his wheelchair. The Dracut students salvaged parts from old wheelchairs supplied by ambulance companies, sought the help of a vocational school for welding services, and petitioned their local fire department for additional funds to purchase an office chair.
“A battery-operated scissor lift raises the chair approximately 10 inches and is operated by a button switch from behind,” says Marcus Soule, the Design Fair’s program manager. “The chair even includes safety shutoff switches so Matt’s legs don’t get crushed under a table, for example, while the chair is being lifted.”
Another standout effort was the “Assistive Mouse,” a combined computer mouse/joystick developed by a team from Minuteman Regional High School for an alumnus who was largely paralyzed from the neck down following an accident. The device allows the person, who has very limited mobility with his hands, to easily manipulate objects.
Other projects included a head-activated messaging system from Methuen High school that allows a student with special needs to communicate; a simplified, enlarged keyboard from UMass Lowell’s TEAMS Academy that enables a paraplegic to use a computer more effectively; a mechanical device from Mass. Academy that lets a 10-year-old boy with cerebral palsy enjoy drawing; an illuminated magnifier from the Greater Lowell Technical School that helps a legally blind student see better; and a motorized creeper from Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical School that makes it easier for a student with neurological disorder to work in the school’s automotive shop.
“The high quality of the projects, in combination with the positive impact that they had on their clients, really highlighted the value of service-learning based projects,” says Soule.
“This experience will have a lifetime impact on how students view people with disabilities,” says Deborah Finch, assistant director of the Future Engineers Center. “Such early exposure to service learning will increase their interest not only in choosing a career in engineering, but also volunteering and committing to numerous non-profit organizations in cities and towns and help them become active citizens in their communities.”
This year’s Design Fair was sponsored by Tyco Electronics, Philips Medical Systems, Medtronic Foundation, 3M Touch Systems, and the Francis College of Engineering.