Conference Paper

Unique Projects for Individual Needs: Assistive Technology Designs in Engineering Education

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This paper describes the integration of design projects to aid persons with disabilities in the mechanical engineering program at WPI. Students ranging from first year through graduate level design and build a wide range of devices as aids to daily living, to improve mobility, or for use in recreational activities. Ongoing relationships with local agencies that serve persons with disabilities are used to solicit project topics. The range of student abilities allows us to fit the sponsor-requested projects to an appropriate class level. Students experience the full range of design activities from needs assessment through prototype construction. Students are highly motivated to work on these unique design projects that have a high impact on their clients.

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In developing the PLAN, WPI sought to address concerns inherent to its then traditional curriculum that was rigid, unresponsive to differences among students, and was compartmentalized by independent departments so that intellectual growth was fragmented. The PLAN was an entirely new and different educational program responsive to the needs of students and society while nurturing sensitivity to the ideas and values of our society. It included fundamental departures from the traditional elements of technical education including: A. The achievement of competence rather than the accumulation of credits. B. Individual freedom and responsibility in planning the program of study. C. A large component of project and independent study learning. D. Emphasis on education as a cooperative venture between faculty and students. Frequently, changes to engineering curricula involve the addition of new material to a well-established body of knowledge. Deciding which components to eliminate becomes the central issue in curricula reform. To adopt and implement the PLAN, the WPI community necessarily employed a more fundamental approach by focusing on learning rather than information transfer. Additionally, the PLAN has been a dynamic entity undergoing continual and substantive revision in the best spirit of continuous improvement. In the following sections the processes invoked in the adoption and revision of the PLAN by the WPI community are outlined in the hope they may help guide other faculties in embracing substantive revision.
We evaluated the pilot semester of a freshman introduction to engineering course in order to provide an understanding of the students' experience in the course and identify aspects of this experience that could lead to improved student retention in engineering. The course concentrates on having students work in teams to identify customer needs, find solutions, and design and build a final product. We used qualitative research methods for data collection and analysis that included interviewing students using a set of open-ended questions, thus allowing them to introduce issues and describe their experiences. Our analysis indicated that students experienced engineering in a supportive, team-oriented environment that provided a context for making informed career decisions. The students' experiences indicate that courses such as this one can help students face the challenges they encounter in beginning their engineering education.
Since 1988 the National Science Foundation has funded the Bioengineering Research to Aid the Disabled (BRAD) program. This program supports university engineering design programs in which the students design and fabricate devices or systems to assist people with disabilities. Universities typically establish an association with a number of rehabilitation or education professionals (REPs) who have a pool of clients. The students collaborate with the REPs, the engineering faculty, and the clients in designing and fabricating assistive devices. Participants in the BRAD program identify a technology and effect its development, evaluation, and delivery to a client, but the technology transfer rarely proceeds beyond these stages.
The changing engineering educational paradigm and, an increased emphasis on engineering science and engineering undergraduate education are discussed. The educational enterprise, and faculty in particular, have been very creative in addressing the challenge for change. Engineering faculty have defined succinct measurable objectives and outcomes at the course and program levels with response data collected, rapidly analyzed and feedback for improvement. A significant and sustainable cultural change and paradigm shift is taking place in engineering education.
Teaching engineering design through senior project or capstone engineering courses has increased in recent years. The trend toward increasing the design component in engineering curricula is part of an effort to better prepare graduates for engineering practice. This paper describes the standard practices and current state of capstone design education throughout the country as revealed through a literature search of over 100 papers relating to engineering design courses. Major topics include the development of capstone design courses, course descriptions, project information, details of industrial involvement, and special aspects of team-oriented design projects. An extensive list of references is provided.
This book is about best practices for the design of mechanical products. It is available from Amazon and other sources at a reasonable price.
Conference Paper
Several challenging issues must be addressed when developing class projects for introductory and intermediate design classes. The students have limited technical backgrounds. Large course enrollments conflict with the desire to have students work in small teams. Developing design course projects based upon devices to aid persons with disabilities can address many of these challenges. For the past 3 years we have implemented this approach in an introductory mechanical design course (50 students) and in an intermediate level course (20 students). Project topics are readily obtained from local and regional organizations that deliver services to persons with disabilities. Multiple appropriate level projects are simultaneously executed in the same class. Each project focuses on the design process and includes building and evaluating a prototype. Final oral and written reports are required. The nature of these projects also requires that the students address a variety of other issues including application of engineering within a societal context, ethics, confidentiality and professional behavior.
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