McCormick Magazine

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Human-centered Design

Undergraduates are finding whole-brain™ solutions for those who need them most


Colin McNary and familyColin McNary looks like any other rambunctious 10-year-old kid: he runs around smiling, clad in a T-shirt and jeans. But when it comes to communicating, Colin faces challenges beyond those of a typical 10-year-old. When most kids want something, like ice cream, they can just ask for it, or plead for it, or even try to negotiate for it before their parents' denial is reflected back in the form of a first-rate tantrum.

But Colin, who is autistic, can't communicate using speech, save a few words, and when he can't communicate -- can't even begin to say that he wants ice cream -- he becomes aggressive. A simple want quickly becomes an outburst.

His parents, Mia and Tim McNary, knew early on that Colin had trouble communicating and worked to secure him an augmentative alternative communication device -- AAC, for short -- when he was five. The touch-screen computer with dozens of images allowed him to learn how to make complex sentences. For the first time in his life, Colin had a voice. Mia lugged around the five-pound device wherever they went. "If we were going to the grocery store, I brought it with," she says. "He needed his voice."

When it came time to send Colin to school, the McNarys, who live in Illinois, decided the best place for Colin was Heartspring, a nonprofit center for children with special needs in Wichita, Kansas. Each day at Heartspring Colin carried the AAC in a heavy, satchel-like carrying case. It was a lot for him to handle: the design of the case caused the device to bang against Colin's chest and bruise him, and he often dropped the case or bumped it into walls and desks. "It kept getting broken, and it takes three weeks to get it repaired," Mia says. "He would lose a lot of ground that he gained."

In 2008 Mia McNary -- whose father is Bill White, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences at McCormick -- heard about the Engineering Design and Communication course at McCormick and wondered if Colin's case would make a good project. "I felt that engineering students could feel good about a project like this," she says. "It wasn't high-tech, but we hoped that students would understand that it would help children with disabilities."

Stories like these are behind many of the undergraduate design projects at McCormick. From the first-year Engineering Design Communication sequence to upper-level courses and certificates in the Segal Design Institute, McCormick encourages students to take on special client-based projects in which they diagnose design problems and find solutions. Not every project is an immediate success; some take years and several different groups attempting different solutions. But many have the right mix of student motivation, analysis, and creativity that gives clients -- whether an autistic child, a scuba diver who was born without arms, or employees at a nonprofit botanical garden -- practical ways to make things easier.

"Undergraduate design courses give students a wide range of design experience," says Bruce Ankenman, associate professor of industrial engineering and management sciences and director of undergraduate programs at McCormick's Segal Design Institute. "They also provide design solutions to individuals and nonprofits that lack vast resources or have a problem for which a solution isn't commercially viable. It's a win-win."

Giving Colin a voice

Colin's project was taken on in early 2009 by first-year students Keshav Rajam, Kevin Lu, and Lauren Nelson. They knew right from the beginning that they wanted to make Colin a new kind of case for his AAC. "We needed something to make the weight more even on him," Nelson says.

"He had to carry his old case with one hand and press the buttons on the AAC with the other," Rajam says. "We wanted a solution that held the device in place while he pushed the buttons."

The team worked with Lindsay Salomon, director of school therapies and applied technology at Heartspring. Through e-mails and Skype conversations, sheColin's new case helped the team work through the design of the new case. "It was great," she says. "They were always well organized and asked good, in-depth questions. They were very passionate about helping a student with autism use his device more effectively."

Rajam, Lu, and Nelson bought a $20 backpack, cut off the straps, and then went to work in the basement shop of McCormick's Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center. They knew they wanted straps on each shoulder but had trouble figuring out how to attach the AAC to the straps so that Colin could easily remove it. (The answer: Aluminum rings.) They created a waist belt that would help distribute the weight of the device more evenly. The team then developed a set of "suspender straps" that allowed Colin to pull the device out from his chest and hold it horizontally for use. "That was the most innovative part of the design," Nelson says. "He could type on the device without holding it in his hands."

The rest of the project involved finding materials -- the right plastic for the case cover, the right adhesive to attach the cover to the case (hot glue), and the right mesh to keep the AAC cool -- needed to make the case ready for testing. Nelson, who grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago and worked with special-needs students in high school, went back to her alma mater to do user observations. "Watching the students use it was really helpful," she says. "It showed us that we really needed to make the straps adjustable."

At the end of spring quarter 2009, the team presented the idea to Lindsay Salomon, Mia McNary, and Bill White.

"When I saw what they did, I almost started crying," Mia says. "I could immediately see how it would help him and affect his behaviors."

When Colin was presented with the new carrying case, he walked up to his teacher and, using a few of the words he can say, said, "Give me a kiss." "Everyone in the room went, 'Whoa, what did he say?'" Mia recalls. "He knew exactly how it would impact his life."

A year later the effect is clear: by having easier access to his AAC, Colin can more easily communicate what he wants and has had fewer behavioral problems. The device also has a secondary effect of giving Colin the sensation of being hugged, which helps remind autistic people where they are in space. Communication deviceThe case is now part of his daily routine: when he gets dressed in the morning, the first thing he does is snap on the carrying case.

"When he stomps his feet, we can catch him before there is a problem because his device is easy to get to," Mia says. "We can have a conversation through the device, and he realizes that we are identifying his needs. The students did such a great job. It was the greatest gift."

For Rajam, Lu, and Nelson, it was a chance not only to work with a client but to create something that would change a child's life. "For me it really hit home," Nelson says. "I really enjoy working with special-needs students, and it was great to be able to continue that in college. It was great to hear Colin felt comfortable with it. That made everything we worked for worthwhile."

Indeed, the device may be just a little too comfortable: earlier this year, the McNarys had to send the AAC back for repairs after Colin plunged into a puddle with it still attached to his chest.

Diving into the deep

It's hard not to be inspired by Jessica Cox. Born without arms, she has devoted herself to living an extraordinary life. She uses her feet to perform not onlyJohn Steger everyday tasks, like driving a car and putting in contact lenses, but also demanding feats like swimming, biking, and flying airplanes.

But when it came to conquering her latest challenge -- scuba diving -- Cox needed a little help. Traditional scuba gear is built for people with arms, so Cox found herself in an ill-fitting harness that didn't allow her to control her body while under-water. She required scuba gear made especially for her needs. A group of juniors and seniors in the Segal Design Institute's Interdisciplinary Design Project sequence wanted to make it happen.

"Everyone on the team applied to be on this project," says Andrew Hutton (manufacturing and design engineering '10). "It was an exciting project, and we knew we were going to have a lot of human interaction."

The team quickly found it needed to modify conventional scuba gear to help Cox keep her center of gravity in the water. "When she cleared water from her mask, she would tumble out of control, lose her orientation, and start sinking rapidly," says Tyler Johnson (mechanical engineering '11), who is himself an experienced scuba diver. "We needed to find a way to stabilize her and make it safer and easier for her to control her buoyancy in the water."

The team spoke with Cox's instructors at Diveheart, a nonprofit organization that works with divers with disabilities, and decided the best way to crack the problem was to jump right in the pool at Northwestern's Henry Crown Sports Pavilion and Norris Aquatics Center. (They used teammate John Steger [industrial engineering and manufacturing and design engineering '10], who had no scuba experience, as a test case.)

"We used birthday balloons to try to control buoyancy and tried to simulate Jessica's experience as best we could," Johnson says. The team quickly got a physics lesson in buoyancy. The center of buoyancy tends to be directly above the center of mass in a body in water. Moving the center of buoyancy would increase stability, but how could it be done?

"We learned that extra pockets of buoyancy are a good thing," says Henry Petrash (manufacturing and design engineering '10). The students added a pouch of foam on the top of the harness, which allows Cox to stay upright in the water. They figured that Cox could better control her buoyancy and stability if she had easier access to the low-pressure inflator hose, which divers use to control their buoyancy to ascend or descend in the water and which is normally located on a diver's chest. The team moved this hose down to the knee so Jessica would be able to alter her buoyancy quickly with the same ease, speed, and comfort as a diver who has arms," Petrash says.

Scuba research teamDespite the team's excitement, the design process had starts and stops. When the students tried to design a harness clasp that Cox could control with her foot, they got a lesson in how a design that works on paper doesn't always translate into the real world and ended up going with a simpler leg harness that prevents the gear from sliding off Cox's shoulders.  The group also observed that when you get a group of four college guys together, the conversation tends to wander, and an hour later, nothing is done. Toward the end of the first quarter, they had a team meeting over Google chat. "That ended up being a landmark moment," Petrash says. In true college fashion, they did most of their design review brief that night.

Throughout the two quarters they worked on the project, the team e-mailed Cox, who lives in Arizona, to get her opinion on aspects of the design. "One of the most important parts about design and engineering work is the client interaction," Hutton says. "Finding what's most appropriate for a project while meeting the client's demands is something that we've been able to experience. You're not just out there inventing crazy things. You're doing it with a client in mind."

"Our project was inspirational," Hutton says. "We balanced our technical understanding of the project with a human touch. Jessica is an inspirational person. It's easy to work on a six-month project when you have that driving you."

The team presented its idea at the end of spring quarter 2010, and Cox listened in via Skype. Cox is excited by the redesigned gear and says she can't wait to try it out when she goes scuba diving this fall. "Knowing that these students -- whom I never even met in person -- chose to dedicate six months to engineer the scuba gear is very touching," she says. "They have given me wings underwater!"

Speeding the census of plants

Researchers at the Botanic GardenOn 385 acres of woods, lakes, prairies, and formal gardens, the Chicago Botanic Garden -- which sits 10 miles north of Northwestern's Evanston campus -- is a suburban oasis and a major destination for Chicagoans who need a break from the bustle of the city.

Here visitors find a pristine array of plants and trees, from serene Japanese bonsai trees to hot-pink rose bushes, which garden staff have gathered from around the world. Cataloging the 2.5 million plants in the collection is no small feat for the garden's four-member plant record staff and 85 volunteers. Together they do a formal inventory of the garden manually, verifying that the plants match the computerized maps and inventories, and then enter that information into a database. The process takes an astonishing seven years, and it is riddled with errors.

"We thought there had to be a technological aid that can help us get past this hurdle and speed this process up," says Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation for the garden.

Several years ago Tankersley looked into purchasing a radio frequency identification (RFID) system that staff could use to automatically read information off special tags via an antenna. But the system they tried failed miserably: it couldn't read the tags well enough, especially in less-than-pristine conditions (like harsh Chicago winters). So Tankersley enlisted the help of the Segal Design Institute, which assigned the project to students in the Interdisciplinary Design Project sequence.

"Our team was made up of a mechanical engineering major, a biomedical engineering major, a manufacturing and design major, and an environmental engineering major," says Max Willer (mechanical engineering '11). "We knew nothing about RFID systems."

The students began by cold-calling RFID manufacturers to ask whether they could borrow a system to try it out, figuring it wouldn't be hard to find a charitable company willing to help out a group of students working on a project.Current plant tags

They were wrong. "It wasn't easy to get a hold of people who wanted to help," Willer says. "It took a long time."

"We weren't designing a product; we were designing a system," says Ariel Wagner (manufacturing and design engineering '10). "We had to talk to different companies and put together different products that made sense. It was the first time I had to go out into industry and convince them to work with us."

Finally, one company -- Omron -- agreed to let the team use an RFID reader, and William Frick and Company, a manufacturer of specialty labeling and marking products, agreed to custom-make RFID tags. The team then had to decide what type of tags to use: active tags with a broader range that require batteries or passive tags with a shorter range that require no power. The students decided active tags powered with solar cells were the answer. Then they ran into their first real-world problem: cost.

Eventually they found the best solution was a high-powered tag reader -- the kind used to ping goods on a truck as it leaves a warehouse -- with passive tags. With these tools, garden staff could walk or drive around with the reader (about the size of a laptop computer), point it at plants throughout the garden, and read the tags. The team tested the system to make sure it could pick up the tags under actual conditions  -- the problem that Tankersley had run into previously. Most plants in the garden are 10 to 20 feet from the path, and many are blocked by branches or other plants and for much of the year are covered by more than a foot of snow.

"A lot of problems with RFID range has to do with moisture in the air," Willer says. "So we tested the system both in the snow and in the semAntenna tagitropical greenhouses."

Tankersley made sure the team tested the system in the worst possible conditions. "I had them test one tag that was buried within a shrub, in a hedge, under two feet of snow," he says. "The system read through it all. I made them repeat the test, and then I smiled from ear to ear."

The students performed one test where they hid eight tags in eight plants within a 10-foot radius. Normally, a volunteer would hunt for those eight tags and write down the information, taking about 30 seconds per tag. With the new system, a worker walked down the path, held out the reader, and picked up all eight tags within 30 seconds.

The team's goal, as defined by the Chicago Botanic Garden, was to come up with a system that could reduce the time it took to complete the inventory to five years. Using the system designed by the McCormick undergraduates, a full inventory could be done in one spring-summer season. "The system they came up with is so cool," Tankersley says. "They thought outside the box. That was what really gave us a thrill. Within a couple of quarters they developed a solution for us."

For the students, the project presented a new sort of design challenge. "I've never designed an inventory system before," says Wagner. "In school we work with real clients, but it's mostly designing products. Designing a system on a scale of hundreds of thousands of items was new, and it was a good learning experience."

"There was less brainstorming and more optimizing," says Willer. "You have a straight and narrow problem -- a reader and a tag. We had to figure out how they could work together, and how to optimize it for both price and range."

The Chicago Botanic Garden's inventory project has implications beyond just keeping track of what is on the grounds. The garden collaborates with conservationists in captive breeding programs to interbreed endangered plants and reestablish them in the wild. The garden has also partnered with more than 2,000 gardens around the world to build a "Noah's Ark" of plants. The program, aimed at preventing the loss of biodiversity, is a registry of which plants each garden has Ñ and which plants they are missing.

The solution the McCormick students devised still needs to be presented to and passed by the garden's board of directors, but Tankersley is already considering other projects that Northwestern engineers could work on. "We're plant geeks, and when it comes to engineering, we're totally clueless," he says. "It was fun to stand back and watch their minds click."

--   Emily Ayshford