Tech and Society students take ingenuity to Brazil

| May 30, 2011

A team from Sweet Briar College is in Ilhéus, Brazil, for the next two weeks working to improve the daily routines of clients in an occupational therapy clinic. The students and faculty are there as part of a class in which they’ve spent the past several months designing and building assistive devices for individuals with impairments ranging from autism to complete paralysis.

Glasses connected to leads that record eye blinks and light up the appropriate indicator allows a paralyzed patient to communicate.

Technology and Society: A Global Perspective is an engineering course that is open to non-majors as well as majors. It brings an interdisciplinary approach to designing solutions to real-world problems in developing societies, and requires students to account for the cultural, political and economic aspects of their work. To better understand their clients’ needs, they also have been studying Brazilian society.

The course was team-taught by assistant professor of engineering Scott Pierce and engineering program director Hank Yochum, who are accompanying the students in Brazil. The team members are staying with host families during their stay from May 29 to June 13.

The Brazil project is also the first time Sweet Briar’s Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program has partnered with another college as part of its Technology and Society courses.

Engineering students from St. Ambrose University in Iowa have been working on teams with Sweet Briar students to develop the assistive devices. Several of them will meet in Brazil and work together at the clinic as their clients try out the project prototypes they have been collaborating on by videoconference.

“We wanted them to interact over a large distance because we know they’ll have to do that in their jobs,” Yochum said of the arrangement.

The St. Ambrose connection arose from a meeting of grant recipients for STEM projects (science, technology, engineering and math), which representatives from both engineering programs attended. The collaboration idea got a boost from St. Ambrose’s well-established Master of Occupational Therapy program.

Students and faculty from the MOT program have worked with disabled and disadvantaged clients at the Brazilian clinic for several years. Looking for ways to enhance some of the tools they use with their patients, they turned to the engineering program. As Yochum described it, “They said, ‘I wish a lot,’ ” while seeking solutions to the more technically complex problems.

Among the projects the engineers have been developing are communication boards, including one that uses an eye-blink switch, a prosthetic hand, and a game designed to be fun to use while building arm strength.

Yochum said prototypes of each device are finished enough for the clients to try out. Those that are ready to use will be left with the clients. Others will be brought back for further development or refinement based on the users’ feedback, which is an important objective of the visit.

Jennifer McManamay

Category: Engineering Science, Uncategorized