RESNA 27th International Annual Confence

Technology & Disability: Research, Design, Practice & Policy

June 18 to June 22, 2004
Orlando, Florida

A Multidisciplinary Project Course on Innovative Assistive Technology for Engineering and Business Majors

Ying Sun, PhD, Musa Jouaneh, PhD,
and Robert Comerford, PhD
Mechanical Engineering, Business,
and Biomedical Engineering,
University of Rhode Island, Kingston , RI 02881


To engage undergraduate students in developing innovative assistive technology, a course was team-taught by three faculty members from different disciplines. Engineering and business students formed multidisciplinary teams to carry out their projects through phases of identification of a specific AT need, conception of a novel solution, prototyping, evaluation, market analysis, financial and manufacturing plans, patent application, and technology transfer. The course spanned over two semesters. During 2002-2003 a total of 21 senior-year students formed four project teams. The projects were in the area of environmental accommodation: a portable powered window opener, a motorized rotating tabletop, a self-lowering shelf assembly, and a motorized reach mechanism. The students learned various aspects of AT, including the design of cost-effective device suitable for manufacturing and technology transfer.


Environmental accommodation, multidisciplinary course, AT education, innovation, technology transfer


The assistive technology industry is characterized by the plurality and diversity of the AT devices. Relatively few devices, such as wheelchair and hearing aid, have sustainable markets to support mass production and standard business models for consumer products (1, 2). For a majority of AT needs, the question often pertains to not only the feasibility of a technological solution but also the affordability of such technology. Engineers who develop AT devices should consider choices of cost-effective, off-the-shelf components. Universal design is another important consideration for maximizing market potential. A new AT device that does not have sufficient market potential to launch a small business on its own may need to be transferred to an existing industry with appropriate manufacturing capability. To transfer technology from academic institute to industry, protection of intellectual properties by patents is an important consideration (3, 4). Thus, assistive technology presents a unique set of challenges for engineers and business people, demanding tight collaboration among them to deliver successful products.


The purposes of this project were the following: 1) to engage engineering and business students in developing useful and innovative AT devices, 2) to learn entrepreneurship from conception to business plan, and 3) to train leadership and teamwork via the multidisciplinary project.


A two-semester course was developed according to the course outline shown in Table 1. The class met for 1.5 hours per week, with a total of 28 weeks. Each student was expected to spend additional 3.5 hours per week outside the class. The grading was based on several in-class oral presentations, the prototype, the business plan, and the patent application. Assessment of the course was done by survey forms filled out by the students at the end of the fall semester and the end of the spring semester.

Table 1: Course Outline

Fall Semester (September-December)

Spring Semester (January-May)

•  Team forming, identification of an AT problem

•  Consultation with AT and industrial experts

•  Product and patent search

•  Conception of an engineering solution

•  Market analysis

•  Proof-of-concept prototype

•  Intellectual property disclosure

•  Final prototype

•  Consultation with experts and evaluation

•  Manufacturing and financial plans

•  Preparation of US patent application

•  Business plan

The faculty brought their expertise on assistive technology, business plan, mechanical and electrical design to the class. In addition, eight guest lectures were given by outside experts on assistive technology, intellectual property, manufacturing, small business development, and AT industry. The guest speakers included four company CEO's. After the multidisciplinary teams were formed. Each team identified a specific AT need and technological solution based on interview with AT users and advice from AT experts. Each team arranged weekly meetings outside the class to carry out the project. Each team was allotted a budget of $800 for prototype components. Additional funds for machining customized components and patent search were also available.


The course was first offered during the 2002-2003 academic year at the University of Rhode Island . A total of 21 students enrolled in this class. These students were seniors from four different disciplines: biomedical engineering, business, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. Four teams were formed. The four AT devices were all motorized mechanical devices for environmental accommodation.

Figure 1 (Click image for larger view)
This figure shows the four AT devices developed by students: portable powered window opener (A), motorized rotating tabletop (B), self-lowering shelf assembly (C), and motorized reach mechanism (D).

A self-lowering shelf assembly (Figure 1A) was design to bring contents of a wall-mount cabinet outward and to a lower level. A single motor was used to lower the pivotable shelves via two chains on the sides. The novelty of this design was that the motorized shelves are retrofittable to an existing cabinet. A rotating tabletop (Figure 1B) was powered by a low-profile motor under the tabletop. This device was intended for people with limited mobility to access food, frequently used items, or tools by activating a switch. A motorized window opener (Figure 1C) was designed to open a double-hung windows. The novelty of this design was its portability. The linear actuator could be quickly and easily moved from one window to another. A motorized reach mechanism (Figure 1D) was design to be mounted on a wheelchair. The arm could be telescoped inward or outward via a powered screw. A netting mechanism at the tip of the arm was designed to securely capture an object. A servomotor was used to open or close the mouth of the net.


Interdisciplinary problem-based learning projects for assistive technology education have been implemented at other universities in the past (5). In this project we brought business and engineering students together. Market and cost-effectiveness considerations were intertwined with engineering considerations starting from the conception phase of the products. The one-year course gave each team sufficient time to finish a fully functional prototype, a draft of patent application and business plan. However, the actual patenting process would extent beyond this time frame and would require additional funds. Technology transfer to industry would also require further work on refined prototypes for manufacturing. The course assessment survey generally showed very positive responses from the students. It was a unique course for business students and engineering students of different disciplines to collaborate on projects at our university. The students also appreciated learning product development, patent application, and entrepreneurship.


  1. Andrich R, Ferrario M, Moi M. (1998). A model of cost-outcome analysis for assistive technology. Disabil. Rehabil., 20, 1-24.
  2. Oldridge NB. (1996). Outcomes measurement: health state preferences and economic evaluation. Assistive Technology, 8, 94-102.
  3. Vernardakis N, Stephanidis C, Akoumianakis D. (1997). Transferring technology toward the European assistive technology industry: Mechanisms and implications. Assistive Technology, 9, 34-46.
  4. Berven HM, Blanck PD. (1999). Assistive technology patenting trends and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Behav. Sci. Law, 17, 47-71.
  5. Stern P, Trefler E. (1997). An interdisciplinary problem-based learning project for assistive technology education. Assistive Technology, 9, 152-157.


This project was supported by a course development grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA).

Author Contact Information:

Ying Sun, Professor
Biomedical Engineering Program,
Dept. of Electrical & Computer Engineering,
University of Rhode Island ,
4 East Alumni Avenue ,
Kingston , RI 02881 ,
Office Phone (401) 874-2515,
Fax (401) 782-6422,

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