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Putting a human face on research

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August 04, 2016

Research manifests itself in many ways at UDM, and an ongoing partnership between the Engineering Department and the McAuley School of Nursing that involves student research is itself the subject of research into teaching and student outcomes.

Mechanical Engineering student Molly Laird fine tunes a stroller for a client who must use a wheelchair.Students earning a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering spend their entire senior year working on a project designed and manufactured to help one person. It’s a project that has been growing and developing each year since it started in 2007, funded mainly by the Kern Family Foundation.

“All university Engineering programs have capstone projects, and it’s usually with a company that says, ‘Here, we want you to redesign this product within these parameters,’” said Darrell Kleinke, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering, who oversees the capstone course. “But here, every year our projects begin with a clean sheet of paper. We never know what we’re going to be asked to do.”

Early in the fall semester, the teams of Engineering and Nursing students meet their clients who are selected from recommendations with the Detroit Veterans Administration, through the consultation of Associate Professor of Nursing Molly L. McClelland.

“These are real people with real needs,” Kleinke said. “And that is what makes this so exciting year in and year out.”

For instance, Mechanical Engineering student Elliott Fernandes is on a team working with a woman with Lupus who must often use a wheelchair or a walker. He is developing a motorized way for her to load her 52-pound wheelchair into the back of her car. The students secured her car’s exact make and model from a junkyard to ensure the device worked properly.

Another group is working on a device for a woman to attach to her walker that allows her to pick up small to midsized items such as her dog’s food and water dishes or other items she may drop.

Previous results of this class have included a spoon to help those who have difficulty eating, a telescoping ramp for people to maneuver a wheelchair over stairs, and a pad that helps those with spinal cord injuries avoid bedsores.

What makes the project work so well, and is the subject of research papers by Kleinke and McClelland, is that the students are motivated by the client. That’s why Kleinke came up with the title, “Faces on Design.”

“It’s not just a project,” said Assistant Dean of Research and Outreach for the College of Engineering & Science Nasiff Rayess. “The motivation is not grades. It’s for a client and a client has a face.”

Another aspect that makes the project unique is the interdisciplinary nature of it.

The teams include Mechanical Engineering students, Nursing students, and Biomedical Engineering students from Lawrence Technological Institute.

McClelland, who is in charge of the nursing aspect of the project, says her students bring a unique perspective that helps in the development process.

“Nursing students are trained in talking to clients and assessing what their needs are,” she said. “And they can be very helpful in the design process because they know what devices already exist, or why something couldn’t be designed a particular way.”

Nursing students also benefit, she said, because they see how engineers think and can develop an entrepreneurial mindset, which will benefit them and their patients.

Senior Engineering student Sarah Wickman, who is working on the lifting device for the walker, admits it might be a little harder to be motivated to work on a capstone project that didn’t have such a payoff—especially because all the members of her team have secured jobs once they graduate in May.

“It’s so cool to see how giddy the client was when she saw what we were working on,” she said. “This project helps us understand the whole process, from research to budget to development. It’s a good end to our college career.”

Kleinke and McClelland say the natural next step is to look to marketing some of the products, though that has been a tough step forward.

“There are some potential benefits because, though we build for one person, there are probably thousands of people who could benefit from what we discover,” McClelland said. “That’s the next step.”

by Ron Bernas

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