AT Designers: The Next Generation

Reprinted from PN June 2011

How can programs encourage undergraduates to enter the assistive-technology field?

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Elaine Houston, a PhD student who uses a wheelchair for mobility, cultivated her interest in the assistive technology (AT) field through participation in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. At the same time, she was taking notes on how she could use what she learned about research, the researchers, and the technologies developed at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) to change others’ behaviors.

After her REU internship and upon returning to her home campus of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Terre Haute, Ind.), Houston created a disability awareness module series to educate other students and faculty on how to enact a more accessible environment. Her passion for education and outreach has continued in her tenure as a PhD student. She is now involved in creating a “Human Enhancement” traveling museum exhibit in conjunction with other RST/HERL researchers and the New York Hall of Science.

The future of AT depends on today’s current undergraduate students who are enrolled in science, technology, and engineering majors. However, many of them do not have an opportunity to engage in hands-on experiences where they are using their skills outside the classroom.

Extracurricular informal learning programs related to research are limited at many smaller colleges. Moreover, many domains (such as engineering) are broad, and opportunities for students to learn about advanced education and career options may also fall short, depending on faculty interest and course offerings.

The field of rehabilitation engineering is multidisciplinary—combining principles of biomedical, computer, electrical, and mechanical engineering—but unknown among many traditional engineering and science undergraduates.

The human-centered aspects of rehabilitation engineering are appealing to many undergraduate students, especially those with disabilities or from underrepresented groups. Designing, prototyping, and evaluating assistive technologies, especially when students get to see the fruits of their labors help end users, is a powerful experience that affects students’ persistence through undergraduate degree programs and interest in and acceptance to graduate school. The future change-makers in this field will likely require an advanced degree to demonstrate strong AT content knowledge, how it will be accepted in the market, and policy implications.

How do students become motivated to pursue advanced degrees? A recent study conducted by the National Science Foundation has shown the program they fund to engage college students in research—REU—has a significant impact on students’ opinions of pursuing an advanced degree.(1) Prior to participating in an REU program, 37% of students expect a bachelor’s will be the highest degree they will obtain. After participating in research, this number decreases to 4%, suggesting the students now believe they will obtain an MS (37%) or a PhD (49%). This belief is amplified when the research area is used to educate, inspire, and empower students with disabilities to pursue advanced degrees.

The ASPIRE (American Student Placements in Rehabilitation Engineering) and Quality of Life Technology (QoLT) REU programs, facilitated by an education and outreach group out of HERL and QoLT Engineering Research Center, have demonstrated successes in recruitment, retention, and encouragement of underrepresented students to pursue advanced degrees in engineering and technology domains. Through workshop series, career events, symposia, ties with minority mentors, and engaging research projects (dramatic transitions in all, but notably, underrepresented), students’ attitudes and confidence toward succeeding in school have occurred—whether undergraduate or graduate degrees.

HERL and the QoLT Center itself is an attraction to students—it is a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics and Human Computer Interaction Institutes and the University of Pittsburgh Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology and Institute on Aging. For QoLT systems to be successfully accepted and adopted, they must be developed so they will be integrated in all contexts of life—body, personal, and community. The QoLT adoption strategy stems from two important beliefs:

(1) Diversity in the incoming student body makes these students particularly valuable to the researchers precisely because this technology is meant for a diverse audience.

(2) The theme of quality of life knows no boundaries of race, gender, or function and, therefore, provides ample personal connection across many backgrounds.

Hongwu Wang and Juan Vazquez work on the Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance (PerMMA). The device is designed to enable greater independence.

Therefore, recruitment efforts are placed on undergraduate students from traditional engineering disci­plines and from rehabilitation science, psychology, and clinical science who work with engineers to ensure viability and adoption of the new QoLT systems.

A Powerful Experience

The objectives of the ASPIRE and QoLT REU programs are to:

- Enroll a highly motivated and diverse group of undergraduate students and excite them about technology and engineering as disciplines and as tools to be influenced and authored, especially with respect to helping people and improving society

- Engage undergraduate students in cross-disciplinary research to gain an understanding of how to relate human functions (physiological, physical, social, and cognitive) to the design of intelligent devices and systems that aid and interact with people

- Increase the number of undergraduates who are well-prepared for graduate studies and professional careers in fields related to QoLT/assistive technology

-Employ targeted recruitment efforts to achieve exemplary participation of under-represented groups—in particular, students with disabilities and those from racial and ethnic minority groups

Each student works on a project related to AT design, development, and/or evaluation, assuming a key role on a team with a graduate student and faculty mentor. Projects from last year include developing an activity monitor for wheelchair users, creating a virtual environment for power wheelchair driving, evaluating a weight-shifting approach to preventing pressure ulcers, creating an interaction design for a home robot, and developing a self-tuned wall system. Students write a technical paper they can submit to the Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America (RESNA) conference and present their findings at a local Student Research Symposium in Pittsburgh.

The program also offers a unique opportunity for students with and without disabilities to work together. This powerful experience provides a change in attitude toward the involvement of underrepresented individuals in science and technology. Students with disabilities demonstrate to their able-bodied peers they can operate machines in the shop or draft 3D model wheelchair simulations using computer access technology. This changes the opinions of all involved of what is possible, and beyond that, the unique perspective students with disabilities bring to creating solutions to help others. Students with and without disabilities are profoundly affected in that many of them become interested in participating in education and outreach activities where they can inspire the next generation of AT designers.

Educate, Inspire, Empower

Like Elaine Houston, many students embark on an “educate, inspire, and empower” trajectory while enrolled in the REU program and beyond. Students first become aware of how AT is designed and developed and become interested in contributing to the field as a future AT designer. They demonstrate a change in behavior by taking classes that are relevant to future degrees for AT careers. Ultimately, they become the designers and progress through the pipeline to graduate school and faculty careers, inspiring and empowering the next generation of AT designers.

Therefore, not only is it important to develop the students’ technical skills and prepare them for advanced education, but also to foster in them a desire to serve as ambassadors who raise disability awareness and motivate an interest in others to become future AT designers.

Working on projects alone is not sufficient training for this future generation of AT designers, however. Accompanying activities include career symposia and workshops to introduce them to the multiple facets of the AT fields, machine shop and electronics workshops where they get to prototype assistive technologies, and field trips where they gain exposure to smart homes and AT clinics. Through these activities, the REU program (1) positively shapes students’ interest in graduate school and careers in STEM, (2) fosters a heightened awareness of themselves and others, especially those who have a disability or are from a different ethnic background, and (3) effectively translates skills to benefit students beyond the REU experience, including enhanced capacity in technical writing, appropriate professional behavior, and effective collaboration with others.

Options for Vets

The success of the ASPIRE and QoLT REU programs has led to the development of ELeVATE, a program designed to assist in veterans’ transition to college and also to recruit another highly underrepresented and capable pool who will bring unique experience and skills to the AT field. The program was funded in 2010 and will begin its first cohort in the summer of 2011.

The foundation created by the ASPIRE and QoLT REU program—which has proven to not only increase students’ self-efficacy but also confirm interest and engagement in engineering and technological disciplines through career exposure activities—will be modeled. Supplementary workshops will provide the necessary remediation to succeed in the program and beyond. New activities created for veteran students, especially with a focus on vocational and rehabilitation support, will prepare this population for their successful transition to college.

The REU mechanism (which, in addition to the aforementioned benefits, develops a support network for students) will be expanded through the academic year for veteran participants. Study groups, benefits assistance, and counseling opportunities will supplement the experiential learning aspects of the program. Once participants are enrolled, support activities will help them achieve their performance subgoals and persist through engineering degree programs that will ultimately result in enrolling in graduate school or obtaining an engineering career. Ample opportunities to become acquainted with the AT field occur in hopes the veterans will also become the next generation of highly qualified and trained AT designers

For more information and to apply for our programs, visit or contact Mary Goldberg at


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