A group of North­eastern engi­neering and phys­ical therapy stu­dents have spent months devel­oping four devices designed to help chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties at an orphanage in Ecuador. On Sunday, 15 stu­dents and their pro­fessor trav­eled to the South Amer­ican country to spend their spring break working with these chil­dren and training clin­i­cians on how to use these devices.

The effort is an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tion between asso­ciate pro­fes­sors Lorna Hay­ward and Waleed Meleis and their stu­dents in the depart­ments of phys­ical therapy and elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering. Hay­ward, who teaches a year­long cap­stone course in phys­ical therapy, part­nered with Meleis, who advises the Enabling Engi­neering stu­dent orga­ni­za­tion, which is focused on applying engi­neering tech­nolo­gies to build low-​​cost devices that improve the lives of the elderly and people with dis­abil­i­ties. Meleis also teaches an Enabling Engi­neering course.

Our goal is to help people in need and make the use of these devices as sus­tain­able as pos­sible,” said Hay­ward, who took her first cohort of stu­dents to the orphanage nine years ago.

Last year Hay­ward and her stu­dents brought two projects to Ecuador—a so-​​called com­mu­ni­ca­tion button and an iPad touch­screen guard. This year, they’ve updated both of those projects and added two new ones. Here’s a closer look at all four devices:


1) Sen­sory cube

Clin­i­cians at the orphanage requested a device that would enhance the sen­sory expe­ri­ence of chil­dren at the center, specif­i­cally for 3-​​year-​​old twins with cere­bral palsy and lim­ited vision. In response, the North­eastern team cre­ated two cubes, which mea­sure 18 inches on all sides. Both fea­ture activ­i­ties on the var­ious sides that the twins could use to engage their audi­tory and vestibular sys­tems as well as their tac­tile and visual senses while allowing them to interact with other chil­dren. The cube focusing on hyper­tonia is designed to help the chil­dren using calming music and soothing tac­tile objects. The cube focusing on hypo­tonia fea­tures exciting music and sounds as well as dif­ferent toys meant to encourage the chil­dren to use their cores for bal­ance and for inter­acting with the dif­ferent objects. (By stu­dents Tessa Fielding, Austin Gold­en­berg, Andrew Horowitz, Christina Poli­castro, Erik Ryde, Madison Schultz, Jus­tine Stein­berger, and Mara Wallisch)

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University

2) Posi­tioning pads
Stu­dents designed cus­tomized, adjustable, and durable pads to better posi­tion chil­dren in wheel­chairs. The pads, which are made of canvas fabric and Saran wrapped foam on the inside, can be used in a variety of ways. For instance, they can be used to sup­port the pelvis to improve their sit­ting posi­tion or placed behind their heel to reduce the pres­sure of their feet against the wheel­chair. (By stu­dents Lucas Barton, Julian Costas, Emily Hagen, and Sarah Saffee)

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University

3) Com­mu­ni­ca­tion button
This project is designed for a 4-​​year-​​old child with autism who is non­verbal and par­tially blind and needed an effec­tive way to com­mu­ni­cate with his care­takers. Stu­dents devel­oped a system that would allow him to express basic needs. They used 3-​​D printing to develop the casing and designed custom cir­cuitry that stores and plays audio record­ings. The com­mu­ni­ca­tion button, which runs on a 9-​​volt bat­tery and is mod­eled after the Sta­ples Easy button, is mounted on the wall. Instruc­tors record a word or phrase, and the child can press the button to play a com­mand such as “Out­side” or “I have to use the bath­room.” (By stu­dents Sam Bell, Marina Eaves, Pooja Jhaveri, Kyle Jones, and Tom Winsor)

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University

4) Touch­screen guard
Hay­ward and Meleis explained that chil­dren with devel­op­mental delays who have lim­ited ability to com­mu­ni­cate can use iPads with com­mu­ni­ca­tion appli­ca­tions to speak, yet chil­dren with cer­tain dis­abil­i­ties often lack the fine motor skills to press the cor­rect but­tons on the screen of tablets. Clin­i­cians at the orphanage requested tablet covers that would make it easier for the user—in this case, three chil­dren with cere­bral palsy who are non-verbal—to only select the items on the screen being used for a lesson. The stu­dents cre­ated touch­screen guards fea­turing a 3-​​D printed base and a laser-​​cut plastic cover. The covers each have a dif­ferent number of holes, to help guide users’ button pushing depending on which lesson in the com­mu­ni­ca­tion app is being used. (By stu­dents Sam Bell, Marina Eaves, and Tom Winsor)

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University