California State University- Los Cal State LA assistive tech program is good for students and rehab patients



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Cal State LA assistive tech program is good for students and rehab patients
Outreach to young people injured by gang violence started the program; now Cal State LA students experience the design process from concept to production

By Abbi Perets Contributing Editor

At California 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 fine-tuning.

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.

Dina Arafa Eldein graduated in May. Her mentor is helping her decide on the next step.
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.

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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," says Landsberger.

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."

D/C

– Abbi Perets is a freelance writer based in Valley Village, CA.