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Engineering students create products with humanitarian focus

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Credit: Courtesy of Adithya Jayakumar

Credit: Courtesy of Adithya Jayakumar

In a world of smartphones and self-driving cars, cutting-edge products work to make consumers’ lives a little easier. But what about when consumers are barred from those technologies because of the cost or a disability? One group of students is working to eliminate that slant through a passion for humanitarian engineering.

Design for 90, a student group that stems from the Humanitarian Engineering Scholars program, aims to design engineering solutions for underserved populations in Columbus.

The group’s name comes from the idea that the vast majority of engineering solutions designed today are marketed to the top 10 percent of the population — those who can afford to benefit from expensive products. With 90 percent of the population unable to benefit from such products, Design for 90 set out with the goal to engineer solutions that enhance the lives of the other 90 percent.

“We focus so much on the top 10 percent, but why don’t we focus on making products for those in need?” said Alec Paige, a third-year in mechanical engineering and a project leader for Design for 90. “This group is more geared towards that. I think society as a whole should shift towards that kind of mindset.”

Adithya Jayakumar, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering, began the group after volunteering with The Heinzerling Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the care, education and treatment of individuals with cognitive and physical disabilities.

Jayakumar said he was struck by the facility’s care and attention to its residents, but saw how overworked some of the caregivers were by the demands of their patients. He wanted to find a way to combine his passions for humanitarian work and engineering in such a way that could benefit residents and employees.

Design for 90 first met Spring Semester in 2015, and the group, now almost 40 students strong, meets weekly to work on its products using Ohio State’s engineering labs.

The group’s first project is for a resident at The Heinzerling Foundation who suffers from Cornelia de Lange syndrome, a rare genetic condition that poses a number of physical and cognitive challenges. The condition causes her to have shortened limbs and small hands, which pose difficulties during meal times, when she requires assistance eating.

After meeting with the resident and employees at the Heinzerling Foundation, the group began designing an adaptive spoon for her. The goal, Jayakumar said, is the resident could learn to feed herself independently, which would benefit both her and the nurses that assist her.

“All her life she’s been fed by people,” Jayakumar said. “So the extra independence (she could have) is worth it.”

The group began working on the spoon in March 2015. The design’s first prototype was tested with the resident at the beginning of this summer, but was sent back for alterations. Students are currently working on a second prototype, which Paige said he hopes will be done by the end of Fall Semester.

“I’m most excited to get it completed and implemented,” Paige said. “I’m in good confidence that this prototype will be able to be implemented by the end of semester.”

Design for 90 has also taken up two other projects with The Heinzerling Foundation. One project is a cup to help a blind resident drink independently and the other is a wearable TV remote to help a resident with limited mobility change the channel without assistance.

Once these three projects are completed, the group plans to expand its reach to work with other underrepresented populations in Columbus.

“Our team has already been working on identifying other populations and organizations that we could partner with,” Jayakumar said. “Then we can go in and figure out what their needs are and if we could help them.”

Jayakumar said that Design for 90 not only benefits the populations they help, but also the students involved.

“We really do have a population of engineering students who are deeply passionate about humanitarian causes,” he said. “We are using our skills in real ways that not a lot of people are doing. It’s a source for us to get our creative sides engaged and attempting to solve problems that no one else are.”

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