Every year, MSU Design Day challenges engineering students to think outside the box. Teams of five conveneto participate in one of MSU's largest competitions, in which creativity is thename of the game. Students are tasked with a project to design a usable,marketable object that technologically enables a task or utility. For the lastdecade, the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities has partnered withone or two teams each semester to create a product that is accessible to userswith disabilities.
RCPD Design Day projects have ranged from a portableaudio-visual book reader, which acts like an MP3 player that reads aloudhighlighted text, to audio-enabled washers and driers. Teams have collaborated with corporations such as Whirlpool and Consumer'sEnergy, as RCPD Assistive Technology Specialist Stephen Blosser has tried tomake the experience as relevant to real-world markets as possible.
"We're aiming to help teach the techniqueof universal design- designing products that are usable by everyone. They learnabout the specific needs for people with disabilities so that when they go onto work in various locations, they will be more aware of the need to increaseaccessibility. You can make the world more accessible if the audio and visualfactors are there," Blosser said.
Last fall, four students set out tocreate clothing that would keep a quadriplegic client warm outside, since theresults of a spinal injury can reduce the ability to self-regulate bodytemperature.
"We wanted to have a betterunderstanding of his needs," said Christina Pline, an Electrical Engineeringstudent and key member of the team. In order to gain an understanding, they metfrequently throughout the semester with their client to create and modify thedesign to fit his specific needs. In the end, the jacket had the ability tomonitor the wearer's internal temperature and simultaneously heat or coolitself using water and solid state devices in a network of tubes lining thematerial. The garment is comfortable to wear, and the option of automatic ormanual control gives a wider range of use.
Rachel Bouserhal, an ElectricalEngineering Master's student, said the product could be marketed with a few modifications.One idea they proposed would involve adding a voice control, which would makeit much more usable for a range of quadriplegic disabilities. Bouserhal alsodescribed how participating in the project had impacted her individually,saying, "It has put in perspective how much we don't realize happens to peoplewith disabilities."
Collaboration between the RCPD,College of Engineering, and professionals has been very successful in the past.After working with the RCPD and the MSU engineering teams to make a talkingwasher and drier, accessible to visually-impaired people, Whirlpool is seekingto make all of their products more versatile. This semester, RCPD and studentsfrom the College of Engineering will work together with Consumer's Energy tocreate an accessible "Smart Grid."
The project, entitled "AccessibleHome Energy Audio Dashboard," (AHEAD), seeks to alter the already establishedSmart Grid, which can monitor the use of electricity and turn appliances offand on according to times of higher energy cost throughout the day. However, inorder for it to be accessible, the thermostat dashboard needs to be modified.The ECE 480 class will take on this feat over the next 3 months to prepare fortheir Design Day presentation on April 30. More information about AHEAD can befound on the ECE 480 website.
Blosser said he is especiallyexcited about this project because it combines technology with practicalimplications in a very tangible way. "I am grateful for this chance towork together in building a more accessible world and I find it appropriatethat it can happen here in Michigan," he said.
Michael Hudson, RCPD Director,stated the importance of the program, saying, "This partnership with theCollege of Engineering is changing lives. From restoring access to grainelevators for Michigan farmers to increasing productivity for a small Michiganbusiness employing people with disabilities, MSU know how is apparent. Ourchallenge remains ensuring that innovative ideas reach full maturity and do notsimply end with the semester."