March 11, 2010
Stanford students reach local community with designs to help people with disabilities
By Adam Gorlick
Thomas Kane was growing weary of his four-legged walker. Well into his 80s, with his eyesight and balance both betraying him, the retired Stanford engineering professor needed something lighter and more nimble than a bulky walker to help him navigate stairwells and board the bus he takes to get around Palo Alto.
"Schlepping a walker around while you're blind and have bad knees is bad news," Kane said.
He wanted a contraption to hold onto with both hands that would allow him to always have at least three points of contact with the ground when he walked. He had experimented with a pair of canes that were made specifically for him, but they didn't feel quite right.
So Harpreet Sangha, a Stanford junior enrolled in a class called Perspectives in Assistive Technology, set out to improve that prototype. She created a better grip on the devices, made an improved attachment for Kane's forearms, and designed an adjustable angle so the slant could be changed to meet his needs.
"It was the first time I've done a hands-on project that was intended to help a specific person," said Sangha, who is majoring in mechanical engineering. "The design is by no means perfect, but it improved the device and introduced me to a new facet of engineering."
Taught for the past four years by lecturer David L. Jaffe, Perspectives in Assistive Technology is open to all undergraduate and graduate students who want to work on a project to assist people with disabilities in the local community. Jaffe opens the class to Stanford's neighbors, and encourages their input and feedback.
"I'm not searching for students to come up with something ready for the commercial market," Jaffe said. "The priority is to have students go through the process of identifying a need, brainstorming ideas, fabricating a prototype, and testing it with a person with a disability. This is practical training for what they'll be doing when they're employed as engineers."
Before teaching at Stanford, Jaffe was merging technology with medical necessity to design wheelchairs and other devices at the Rehabilitation Research and Development Center at the Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Palo Alto. Robotics, embedded computer systems, cutting-edge sensors, virtual-reality systems, and simulators all played a role in the designs he researched.
"My mother wanted me to be a doctor, but I always wanted to be an engineer," Jaffe said. "So this was sort of in between."
He gets ideas for his student's projects like the cane prototype from fellow engineers, former VA colleagues, and staff and residents at local assisted-living centers. Caregivers, researchers, people with disabilities, and product designers speak to the class and offer project advice and feedback during the 10-week course.
"What's going on in that class is great," said Kane, who hopes Jaffe's next round of students make even more improvements to the cane that Sangha worked on during the past three months. "They're helping people like me with ideas to make something better, but no way of implementing them."
Jaffe's students form teams when the class begins each winter quarter, and each team picks a project to work on. Last year, one team designed a surfboard for a surfer with quadriplegia. Another group came up with a software application to help people with visual impairments dial phone numbers on their smartphones.
This year, along with the work done by Sangha's "Team Quadruped" to improve Kane's canes, "The Rechargers" redesigned a vest that recharges implanted deep brain stimulators. The implanted stimulators help control shaking symptoms caused by Parkinson's disease and seizure disorders.
The stimulators need to be recharged a few times a week, but the current recharging vests are often uncomfortable and cumbersome, hard to put on, and difficult to keep in the correct position.
"These devices we're working on help people go about their lives so their disabilities don't keep them from doing what they want to do," said Reid Miller, a senior who worked on the device. "Medical devices can actually turn the disabled into being completely able." Although the class ends this week, Miller wants to continue working on the device as an independent study project next quarter.
He designed a prototype for a new vest with Dara Roberts, a freshman who has cerebral palsy, osteoporosis, scoliosis and poor vision. Roberts uses a wheelchair, and has considered working in a field that would help people with disabilities. But Jaffe's class was her first encounter with engineering, and it opened her to the idea of pursuing a career designing devices.
"This class gives students that first opportunity to explore their ideas and exercise their skills as engineers," Jaffe said. "There comes a time in your student life when you have acquired enough information. You then need to apply it. That's what this class is for."