Students’ tech-based proposals ‘enable’ elderly and severely disabled

Hi, G.U.S.

Meet G.U.S.—the Get Up Seat. The soon-to-be-prototyped assistance device will help elderly users get up from falls and give them support when they start to feel weak. It’s the brainchild of Northeastern students Laurel McCallister and Ellie Schachter in partnership with Little Brothers—Friends of the Elderly, a national network of volunteer-based organizations dedicated to serving those 60 and up.

The device—whose design specifications include a fold-away seat, walker connection, and wheel lock—can be prototyped for just $84 and may help decrease the vast number of older adults in the U.S. who die from falling. In 2011, that figure exceeded 22,000.

“We believe our design can be competitive in today’s market, especially after we fine-tune the prototype,” McCallister said. “We’re trying to make the design as generic as possible so that it can adjust to fit most walkers.”

McCallister, E’16, and Schachter, E’17, presented their design proposal to more than 20 students, project mentors, and inquisitive faculty members in 13 Snell Library earlier this month. They are but two of 10 students enrolled in “Enabling Engineering,” a technical elective aimed at using engineering technologies to build prototypes for low-cost devices that improve the lives of the elderly and individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities.

The engineers-in-training work with end users and caregivers at local nursing homes and special education schools—the Carter School, the National Braille Press, and the South Shore Education Collaborative among them— to assess specific needs, research potential solutions, and develop detailed proposals.

“Enabling Engineering” is led by Waleed Meleis, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering. Meleis, whose expertise ranges from multiagent machine learning to scalable processing systems, also serves as the faculty adviser for the eponymous student group, whose 40 members work to bring the prototypes to fruition.

In the past year, the group has convened 30 students, five project partners, and four professional mentors from two design firms—Fikst and Essential Design—to tackle 11 projects. The young engineers have received funding from a range of entities, including IDEA: Northeastern’s student-run venture accelerator, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, and the human services organization Lifestream Inc.

“Our stu­dents have enthu­siasm, energy, and ideas,” Meleis has said. “They are incred­ibly caring.”

Using iPads to save lives

Colleen Gallagher, E’18, and Tyler Paskowski, E/CIS’17, are prime examples. Earlier this month, they presented a design proposal for an iPad app aimed at motivating children afflicted by cerebral palsy to increase their lung capacity. Their project partner is the Carter School, a public school on the border of Boston’s Lower Roxbury and South End neighborhoods whose students present severe disabilities and complex health needs.

“Building up lung capacity is essential to living a health life,” said Paskowski, noting that those with CP suffer from poor respiratory muscle function, leading to infection, restrictive lung disease, and even death. “We need to find a way to motivate these kids to speak and make noises.”

Their idea is based on the concept of cause and effect. Here’s how it would work: The app user makes a vocal noise, prompting visual or auditory stimulus to materialize on the iPad screen. The visual stimulus takes the form of either red or yellow circles, whose size will parallel the decibel level of the vocal noise—the louder the sound, the bigger the circle. The audio stimulus, of which there will be three options, depends on what the kids at the Carter School respond to, whether it’s the distinctive growl of a tiger or a clip from their favorite film. “Either type of stimulus will provide motivation that a child needs to speak,” Paskowski said.

If the project moves forward, Paskowski and Gallagher will enlist a few talented programmers in the Enabling Engineering student group to build the app, and then the finished product will be published on iTunes.