University of Rhode Island - Assistive Technology Devices

In 2002, NCIIA supported the creation of Assistive Technology Devices, a two-semester course at the University of Rhode Island. Within the course, interdisciplinary teams of engineering and business students create a novel assistive technology device aimed at the community abroad. Teams work through the entrepreneurial process of product design and commercialization and present the results to a group of businessmen and engineering alumni. The course has impressed faculty around campus, and URI is soon to offer a university-wide course based on the sequence.

Program structure and goals

Assistive Technology Devices is a two-course sequence in which multidisciplinary E-Teams comprised of undergraduate senior engineering and business students design, prototype and attempt to commercialize assistive technology devices.

At the beginning of the fall semester, faculty members from two engineering departments and the college of business administration offer a list of general topics to student teams. The topics come from problems suggested by the Slater Hospital, special-education schools, nursing homes, and physical therapy centers. A broad range of assistive technology issues are addressed:

  • Mobility enhancement
  • Communication
  • Environmental control
  • Access aid
  • Ability switches
  • Voice activation
  • Specialized sensors
  • Human-computer interface

Teams are asked to:

  1. Propose a novel device from one of the general topics, or propose their own.
  2. Perform patent searches and a marketing study to help them design products that have a good chance of commercialization.
  3. Come up with a detailed product design, making realistic estimates of manufacturing cost.

At the end of the first semester, teams submit a proposal that includes a short business plan, a design, a budget and a plan to build a working prototype. Through a competitive process, extra funding is awarded to the teams whose products have the best chance at commercialization. This money supports their work in the following semester in building prototypes, creating more detailed business plans, and seeking commercialization opportunities. At the end of the spring semester, all teams make presentations detailing the results of their development and commercialization efforts to a group of businessmen and engineering alumni, with the idea of attracting further support for the teams’ activities.

The overall goal of the program is to give participating students first-hand experience in the entrepreneurial process, with a focus on socially beneficial assistive devices. This process includes:

  • Risk-taking
  • Setting high goals
  • Performing a marketing study
  • Product development
  • Prototype development
  • Writing a business plan
  • Seeking commercialization opportunities

History and context
Since 2000, the Assistive Technology Laboratory at URI and the Slater Internship program have involved students in the research and development of assistive technology devices for use in the Rhode Island Slater Hospital. The patient population at the Slater Hospital consists mostly of quadriplegic, paraplegic and cerebral palsy patients. Examples of student-developed devices are:

  • A single-switch environmental control unit
  • A voice-activated environmental control unit
  • A voice-activated nurse call bell
  • An ultrasonic remote door control
  • Wearable ability switches
  • Multi-port sip-and-puff switches

Over time, engineering faculty members at URI realized that, while certainly valuable, the Slater Internship program was limited in scope because the student-developed devices were aimed only at hospital settings. Professor of Mechanical Engineering Dr. Musa Jouaneh re-developed the Assistive Technology Devices sequence to take the student innovations out of the hospital and apply them to the community at large. Says Dr. Jouaneh, “We wanted to open the program up to address the needs not only of the severely disabled, but also the elderly and moderately disabled individuals in the community at large.”

“Assistive device technology for everyday people in the community is not an area addressed much in industry. We wanted to come up with a way to help these people.”

E-Teams are required to be multidisciplinary, and must have engineers from at least two different engineering departments and one to two business students. In the first year of the course, four E-Teams formed from twenty-one students; in the second year, five teams formed from thirty-two students. Of those nine teams, four applied for Advanced E-Team funding, and though none were approved, one is resubmitting.

Innovative and entrepreneurial outcomes
Some examples of innovative assistive technology devices the E-Teams have developed are:

  • Self-lowering shelf assembly
  • Easy window opener
  • Automatic page-turner
  • Improved manual wheelchair drive system

Thus far none of the E-Teams have successfully commercialized their product, but the team developing the automatic page-turner is headed in that direction.

Challenges and lessons learned
One of the primary difficulties faced in the sequence is getting students from different disciplines to communicate and work as a team. Says Dr. Jouaneh, “Engineering students bring a different perspective to the table than management or marketing students. Reconciling the two and ensuring effective communication between team members can be a challenge.”

A second challenge arises from the less structured, open-ended nature of the sequence. “It’s a different type of course,” says Dr. Jouaneh. “In a lot of courses, the goals are very clear and the course structure is rigid. In Assistive Technology Devices, it’s up to the students to create their own opportunities. Some students struggle with that.”

Future prospects
The innovative approach of the Assistive Technology Devices has impressed faculty around campus, and URI is soon to offer a university-wide course similar to the sequence. The sequence itself continues to grow and develop.

Supplementary materials
Course syllabus