An inter­dis­ci­pli­nary group of North­eastern Uni­ver­sity stu­dents and fac­ulty have com­bined their knowl­edge of engi­neering and phys­ical therapy to design, develop, and then deliver two low-​​cost com­mu­ni­ca­tion devices to dis­abled chil­dren living at a pair of orphan­ages in Ecuador.

Under­grads in Northeastern’s Enabling Engi­neering stu­dent group cre­ated a so-​​called com­mu­ni­ca­tion button and an iPad touch­screen guard, both of which allow kids with cog­ni­tive and phys­ical dis­abil­i­ties to more effec­tively interact with their care­takers. Phys­ical therapy stu­dents then deliv­ered the devices to kids living at the For His Chil­dren Orphanage, which runs res­i­den­tial care facil­i­ties in Quito and Lat­a­cunga. The stu­dents showed up during spring break, admin­is­tering therapy to young patients as part of a year­long cap­stone course led by phys­ical therapy asso­ciate pro­fessor Lorna Hayward.

By linking up the exper­tise of fac­ulty and stu­dents in dif­ferent col­leges, we can inspire our stu­dents, help those in need, and build great and rel­e­vant projects,” said Waleed Meleis, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering who serves as the fac­ulty adviser for the Enabling Engi­neering stu­dent group. “We’re happy to design for indi­vid­uals because we design for people who aren’t part of the mass market.”

In the past year, he said, more than 50 stu­dents, fac­ulty advisers, design men­tors, and com­mu­nity part­ners have worked together to tackle some 20 projects. The touch­screen guard project grew out of a problem-​​solving meeting between six North­eastern engi­neering stu­dents and instruc­tors at the South Shore Edu­ca­tional Col­lab­o­ra­tive, a Hingham, Massachusetts-​​based facility that pro­vides edu­ca­tion, coun­seling, and ther­a­peutic ser­vices to approx­i­mately 350 people with mod­erate to intense phys­ical and med­ical challenges.

Physical therapy students delivered the iPad touchscreen guard and the communication button to kids at the For His Children Orphanage in Ecuador.

Phys­ical therapy stu­dents deliv­ered the iPad touch­screen guard and the com­mu­ni­ca­tion button to kids at the For His Chil­dren Orphanage in Ecuador.

The problem, instruc­tors told the stu­dents, was that chil­dren with devel­op­mental delays had trouble pressing the cor­rect but­tons on their iPad screens, par­tic­u­larly when using the GoTalk Now app, a com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool for people who have dif­fi­culty speaking. The solu­tion, both par­ties agreed, was to design a cus­tomiz­able iPad cover that made it easier for chil­dren to select the cor­rect items on their edu­ca­tional software.

The engineers-​​in-​​training got to work, cre­ating iter­a­tion after iter­a­tion of the device under the guid­ance of industry mentor Paul Sabin, the prin­cipal of the design firm Fikst. The final pro­to­type, which the stu­dents deliv­ered to the res­i­den­tial facility in Jan­uary, com­prised a 3D-​​printed case and a clear plastic screen guard including four holes to guide users’ button pushing. The screen guard slides onto the case, which holds the iPad.

The device deliv­ered to chil­dren in Ecuador included four-​​hole, six-​​hole, and nine-​​hole models, making it easy for any of the kids to cor­rectly use the GoTalk Now app. “They were custom-​​fit,” said Hay­ward, who’s been run­ning the alter­na­tive spring break trip to the Ecuado­rian orphan­ages for eight con­sec­u­tive years. “One girl was unbe­liev­able,” she added. “She picked it up so quickly and was making jokes with the app.”

The com­mu­ni­ca­tion button, she noted, derived from her stu­dents’ pre-​​trip needs assess­ment of the orphanage’s chil­dren. One child—a 4-​​year-​​old with autism who is non­verbal and par­tially blind—was in par­tic­ular need of an effec­tive way to com­mu­ni­cate with his instruc­tors, who found him rather challenging.

The device—which runs on a nine-​​volt bat­tery and is mod­eled after the Sta­ples Easy Button—solves that problem, allowing him to effec­tively com­mu­ni­cate with his care­takers. All he must do is press the button, bright blue, bumpy, and mounted to a wall at eye-​​level, and wait for one of his instruc­tors to heed the pre-​​recorded com­mand, which issues forth from an implanted record­able sound module and ampli­fier. “Out­side,” it might say, or “I have to use the bathroom.”

Instruc­tors can record a new word or phrase at any time, but the device is presently designed to play back only the most recently recorded utter­ance. “We wanted to make the button as sim­plistic as pos­sible, so that it wouldn’t break,” explained Marina Eaves, E’18, one of three stu­dents who helped design the device. “The parts are easy to replace and every­thing is built to last.”

The inter­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tion between the engi­neering stu­dents and their phys­ical therapy peers, she said, proved espe­cially useful in the project’s pro­to­typing phase. The button’s bumps, she explained, would never have become part of the device’s design had phys­ical therapy stu­dents not brought up the extent to which visually-​​impaired people rely on touch. “Working across bound­aries was really great because it gave us a dif­ferent per­spec­tive on what we were building,” she said. “The phys­ical therapy stu­dents knew things about the end-​​users that we didn’t know.”

A kid at the For His Children Orphanage uses the communication button.

A kid at the For His Chil­dren Orphanage uses the com­mu­ni­ca­tion button. Cour­tesy photo.

Meleis noted that the Enabling Engi­neering group wants to refine—and ulti­mately commercialize—both devices. And he and Hay­ward, he said, are cur­rently working to design a joint course for engi­neering and phys­ical therapy stu­dents alike. “Stu­dents are craving inter­dis­ci­pli­nary expe­ri­ences,” he explained, “and they want to feel like what they’re studying is having a true impact on people’s lives.”

The stu­dents that con­tributed to the project, whether in the design or imple­men­ta­tion phase, found that the expe­ri­ence had trans­formed their career ambi­tions. Samantha Bell, E’18, who helped to design both devices, dis­cov­ered her pas­sion for product devel­op­ment and then lined up a co-​​op with Columbia Tech, the West­bor­ough, Massachusetts-​​based firm. “I like to make things,” she said, “and I love to help people.”

Nick Man­gone, BHS’16, helped pro­gram the iPads for the orphanage’s chil­dren, and then spent the next sev­eral days admin­is­tering phys­ical therapy and watching them enjoy their new com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools. “I’d def­i­nitely be inter­ested in working in the pedi­atric set­ting,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to be able to do some­thing that allows someone to be inde­pen­dent and see how happy it makes them.”