Engineering for Humanity: Local Students and Seniors Team Up

The first time Shubhangini Prakash had to propel herself to the bathroom in a wheelchair at a local council on aging activities center, she almost gave up in frustration.

Prakash was only sampling what life was like for people with limited mobility. But she says it was her “aha” moment.

“I never realized how hard it is,” the 27-year-old MBA student says. “Even when you’re young and have your muscle strength.”

That’s the idea behind a new college course called Engineering for Humanity being taught at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering near Boston: to help future engineers, product designers, marketers and others realize what it’s like to get old.

They do this not only by sampling the wheelchairs, walkers, and other devices incongruously parked in the corner of their cavernous classroom, but by teaming up with seniors, who they’ve gotten to know over dinners, while bowling together, and on visits to the elderly partners’ homes.

“It’s a wonderful way of approaching engineering,” far different from staring at a laptop in a cubicle,” says Leslie Jose, a 78-year-old who works with the students in the class. “There’s more to the world than that, and they’re finding that out.”

On the face of it, there’s nothing necessarily unusual about a team of student engineers devising products to help people cope with the challenges of aging. After all, it’s a huge growth market.

But this group is helping solve the problems of their flesh-and-blood volunteer retirees in a surprisingly rare approach to product design that incorporates the needs of real-world consumers.

“Until you’re in their shoes, you can’t really design for people,” says Ela Ben-Ur, an adjunct assistant design professor at Olin who co-teaches the course.

The class has been working on a pillbox with a buzzer that reminds people to take their medications, for example, a foot-massage device for people with neuropathy, and a bottle opener with an easy-to-use long-handled lever.

“When you’re building a building, you think about, how do I build this for the majority of people—not, will people in a wheelchair be able to get past this corner,” says Kathryn Kenney, senior at nearby Wellesley College majoring in anthropology, who also takes the course.

The classroom is crowded with free-standing whiteboards hung with multicolored sticky notes and photos of the smiling retirees who work with the students, their day-to-day problems, possible solutions, and assorted designs—including some (the butter robot, the utility belt) that never got beyond these drawing boards.

There are also prototypes here and there, like several for the bottle opener, along with different kinds of containers to test it on. The coffee cups are the students’.

“Where else are they going to have the opportunity to try these things out?” asks Jose, who has post-polio syndrome and uses a walker and a scooter to get around, and for whom the students are designing a desk that pushes away from her chair rather than vice versa, and a tray that can be attached to her walker to help her carry things.

“I never thought of engineering except as being very, very structured, but they will ask me questions it might not have even occurred to them to ask their grandparents—not because we’re strangers, but because we have a singular purpose,” Jose says.

Now the engineering school has formalized a collaboration with a nearby assisted-living center for the elderly to develop products in this way—and through which the center’s well-heeled residents can financially support the work.

It’s already resulted in a smartphone app designed by students that helps people living in the assisted-living center communicate with their caregivers.

All of this is about more than engineering. The students also study anthropology, and one of the instructors, Caitrin Lynch, is an associate professor of anthropology whose research focus is aging.

Each of the students has gone through “empathy exercises,” such as going to the bathroom in a wheelchair or experiencing simulated versions of arthritis and deteriorating sight and hearing. On one recent day, several acted out a conversation about death and dying, and shared what they had learned about it.

“A lot of engineering students are attracted to the idea of doing good with their engineering,” Lynch says. Once they understand their audience, she says, “there are so many design opportunities with this. They can make a difference in their own backyards.”

Or even closer. Tamanna Ahmad’s parents are near retirement, and the MBA candidate at Babson College, who is also in the class, says, “A lot of the things I see in this course, I see in them.”

She says, “We all know that it’s tough to get older in America on so many levels.” Working with Jose and the others has brought that into even sharper focus.

Photo courtesy of Olin College of Engineering 

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