The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Special Needs Students Visit UMass and Test Devices to Make Them More Independent

Brushing our teeth and tuning a radio are activities that most people take for granted, but for some of us being able to do these simple tasks would be the chance of a lifetime. That’s exactly what happened on May 4 when 10 special education students from West Springfield Middle School visited UMass Amherst to test out engineering devices designed to make their lives much easier and more independent. The devices, created in cooperation with West Springfield Middle School special needs teacher Megan Ferrari by undergraduates in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department for their mandatory Senior Design Project, allow disabled students to carry out two of their regular daily functions, tuning a radio and brushing their teeth, for the first time on their own.

One device, named the Minimal-Movement Interactive Entertainment Interface, is designed specifically to improve the quality of life of a student with very limited mobility.

“A student from West Springfield Middle School suffers from Cerebral Palsy,” as ECE seniors Ernest Wilson, Mike Lorenzo, Ryan Kelly, and Chase Francis explain in their project description. “She is limited to only minimal movement in her right shoulder socket with minimal range. This student enjoys the entertainment of lights and music but does not retain the independence to undergo this experience on her own. The student's teacher approached us with the problem, and it is our job to design the solution. We are faced with the challenge to create a design in which this interaction can be accomplished with very limited movement required.”

The device they came up with allows the student to control an MP3 player and all its normal commands by using simple hand gestures.

“Our design is based on the interconnection between voltage sensors and an MP3 player,” explain the ECE seniors. “These sensors will be placed wirelessly on a desk top in a convenient location for the user to enter input and will recognize certain gestures. Specific hand motions will be interpreted in software and will allow the student to wirelessly communicate with the MP3 player.”

The second invention, called Place N Paste, was created by Salvatore Cacciatore, Kenneth Neyhart, Benjamin Oven, and Tony Saloio to help assist special needs students in their daily tooth-brushing. Some students in the class do not have fine motor skills, so squeezing toothpaste onto their brushes is difficult and requires supervision and assistance. This device, which will be deployed in the restrooms used by the special needs students, is designed so they can add toothpaste to their brush without the need for supervision.

“The design can be broken into five major components,” the ECE seniors explain in their project report, “the micro controller, the user interface, the guiding arm, the dispensing mechanism, and the enclosure. Each component helps contribute to our list of requirements that was derived directly from the users’ needs and abilities. We emphasized key requirements that a typical user would expect from our product such as sanitation, ease of use, size limitations, and other requirements that would make the product more useful for everyday application.”

The ECE undergraduates created both devices for their required Senior Design Project, which provides a capstone experience for every student in the ECE department. Students work in teams of four during a year-long course to design and build systems of their own conception. Each team is advised by a faculty member in the department, and projects undergo several formal reviews. The learning goals for the senior design project include technical design, an understanding of realistic constraints, ethics, and much more. (May 2012)