State University- Los Angeles, a new Rehabilitation
Engineering Research Center offers spinal cord injury
(SCI) rehab patients custom-built adaptive exercise
equipment -- and teaches engineering students about
the design process at the same time. A five-year, $4.5
million grant from the National Institute on Disability
and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR, Washington, DC),
a component of the U.S. Department of Education, will
fund the center and its projects.
The center's work expands on a program that began at
Cal State LA in 1999. Hands-on Experiences in Rehabilitation
Engineering (HERE) lets college and graduate students
go through a full project life cycle over the course
of eight weeks. The program gives students experience
in client need determination, design, computer drawings,
construction in the machine shop and lab and field testing.
Many students also go through a post-production design
evaluation so that they understand the need for constant
A dual connection
The HERE program's developer, Dr Samuel Landsberger,
is both a member of the Cal State LA faculty in ME and
kinesiology and the director of rehabilitation engineering
at a local rehab center. His dual connection gives students
a unique opportunity to do real-world projects and see
them in action.
Funding from NIDRR supports the student projects. If
students need funds beyond the basic NIDRR grant, they
learn to work with vendors, ask for donations, and come
up with creative solutions for cutting costs.
The ability to actually produce the devices they design
is very helpful for the learning process, says Landsberger.
"They learn so much more than they would if they
only came up with drawings or a theory. Students put
the design into practice and learn that things don't
always work the way you plan. They also learn how to
stay within budget and how to keep costs down without
sacrificing quality," he says.
Bringing their designs to life also gives students
a chance to work directly with clients with disabilities.
That's an added benefit: the students get to see how
their work affects others, says Landsberger.
|Cal State LA students work
on a "hockey chair" for Rancho Los Amigos.
Starting with HERE
The activities that led to the development of HERE began
in the early 1990s when Landsberger first moved to Southern
California and joined the rehabilitation design team
at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center
(Downey, CA), a well-known rehabilitation hospital.
The clinic's location near Los Angeles meant that a
number of patients were former gang members and others
caught up in gang violence who were recovering from
gunshot wounds. Many were wheelchair users with SCI.
"I met with one group regularly, and one night
I asked them what kind of assistive device they would
be most interested in," recalls Landsberger. "One
of the girlfriends started whispering, and soon everyone
was laughing. Several months later, we had built them
a portable 'love machine.'"
The SCI patients were also interested in devices that
give them access to exercise opportunities. Landsberger
realized that the development of such specialized devices
and other meaningful projects would be a good way to
motivate his design students.
|This "beach cruiser"
was designed by HERE program students. They did
needs determination, design and field testing.
"This program is an excellent way to introduce
minority students -- particularly diverse students in
the heart of East LA -- to this field," he says.
"They came up with ideas for projects like a motorized
beach wheelchair, a scuba diving suit modified for paraplegics,
and vision-enhancement devices that students can fold
up to carry around campus and pop open in class."
From HERE to HERO
Students who have finished a HERE project may go on
to participate in Hands-on Experiences in Rehabilitation
Outreach (HERO). HERO gives the college students the
chance to mentor middle school kids and take their "mentees"
through the design and build process.
"Cal State undergrads go into the schools in Compton
-- one of East LA's poorest neighborhoods -- and work
with kids in grades five, six and seven," says
Landsberger. "We start by teaching the kids to
build bridges out of popsicle sticks and slowly work
our way up to a project that is related to rehabilitation.
"The program is phenomenal. It gives creative
kids a chance to shine. And for the undergrads, many
of whom come from Compton or neighborhoods like Compton,
the chance to be a mentor, to be someone people admire
and look up to, is a very powerful experience,"
Participation in HERE is generally open to all interested
undergrad students at Cal State LA. "There's no
formal application process. I'm more concerned with
their commitment to the program than with their engineering
background," he says.
Senior design students already have a full engineering
background, and the goal of their projects, says Landsberger,
is to provide a "fertile setting where their designs
can come to life."
"The work I do here is incredibly rewarding,"
Landsberger declares. "I've always wanted to create
objects that benefit people. Here I can do that, and
at the same time, I can show students the world beyond
Cal State LA."
Abbi Perets is a freelance writer based in Valley Village, CA.