Service Learning as a Means of Delivering Assistive Technology Solutions

Allen Hoffman PhD, Holly Ault PhD, Michael Scarsella BS, Steven Toddes BS
Mechanical Engineering Department
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester MA 01609-2280


Service learning integrates academic learning with community service and often focuses on underserved populations. This paper describes the use of service learning activities throughout the curriculum as a means of technology transfer for delivering assistive technology (AT) solutions. Several examples are presented. This approach has been beneficial to agencies seeking AT solutions for their clients. The students have equally benefited through pre-professional experience in solving real world problems. This approach could be readily replicated in other venues.


Service delivery, technology transfer, service learning


Agencies and organizations that offer services to persons with disabilities are increasingly reliant upon technology for the delivery, management and improvement of the assistance that they provide. Often these agencies lack the budget and/or staff expertise to develop custom devices or implement sophisticated technology. Service learning is a pedagogy that integrates academic learning with the solution of community based problems. Within the context of engineering education, using senior design projects to design assistive technology solutions was first encouraged by the National Science Foundation in 1988 (1). WPI was an early participant in the NSF program. As our activities expanded, the WPI Assistive Technology Resource Center (ATRC) was established to create a more formal link with organizations which provide services to persons with disabilities (2). The ATRC provides a vehicle for generating AT problems from local and regional agencies that can be used as projects in undergraduate courses. In 2004 WPI joined the national Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program. EPICS focuses on long-term projects in which teams of engineering undergraduates are matched with community service organizations that request technical assistance (3). WPI is unique among the EPICS universities in that its major focus is on establishing relationships with organizations that provide services to persons with disabilities and then using service learning activities throughout the undergraduate curriculum to develop and transfer assistive technology solutions to these organizations. Service learning activities encompass 3 courses; a first year Introduction to Engineering course, a 2nd/3rd year Introduction to Design course and 3rd/4th year course in Rehabilitation Engineering. Service learning activities also take place in a required 3rd year project that relates technology and society and in the 4th year major design project. Both of these projects are equivalent to 3 courses. Students may also work on EPICS design projects as a voluntary co-curricular activity.


Potential assistive technology projects are solicited from organizations serving persons with disabilities through the ATRC network. Project requests are usually 1-2 paragraphs in length and describe the problem and desired solution. Faculty often obtain further information from the potential project sponsor. Each project request is then categorized as a potential course project, a possible junior level project or a potential senior design project. Students work in groups of 3-4 students. In courses, up to 3 student groups may be assigned to the same project. Course projects are expected to yield at least a working prototype, although usually the design and /or prototype will need further refinement before actual use. Junior and senior level projects are expected to yield complete solutions and fully functional prototypes. A more detailed discussion of implementing course projects appears elsewhere (4). It is not uncommon for students to follow their prototype from an assigned classroom project to the voluntary program (EPICS) so as to see their project through to completion. EPICS students can receive academic credit for their work. EPICS groups usually consist of some of the original prototype designers as well as new students who provide a fresh outlook on the problem utilizing the comments of the sponsoring agency.


This photo shows 3 prototype devices that would allow a man with partial finger amputations to use a spray can.  The first uses a pistol grip, the second is a holder to allow him to his middle finger, the third device allows him to use his remaining thumb motion. Figure 1. Three prototypes to allow a man with partial finger amputations to use a spray can. (Click image for larger view)

During the 2005-06 academic year, 152 students participated on 37 teams to design 15 AT related devices. One hundred thirty students completed their projects in the 3 undergraduate courses, 15 students participated in EPICS to refine the designs developed through course projects. Seven students were involved in senior design projects. These projects produced wheelchair accessible garden tables, tamper-proof wheelchair brakes, a computer table for a bedridden client, and a one-arm drive manual wheelchair. More recently in the fall of 2006, groups of students in the 1st year engineering course developed 3 prototypes that allow a maintenance worker with finger joint amputations to operate conventional spray cans (Figure 1). The designs are presently being evaluated by the client.

This photo shows a prototype camera mount and the control interface that allows a person with cerebral palsy to independently operate a video camera.  Figure 2 Camera mount prototype that allows a person with cerebral palsy to independently operate a video camera. (Click image for larger view)

Two groups in the 2nd/3rd year design course undertook a project to assist a young man with cerebral palsy who intends to go to college and major in film directing and production. They designed a camera mount to enable him to independently control a video camera, thereby allowing him to set up and shoot videos without assistance (Figure 2). Presently a group of 3 students engaged in their junior level project are developing training materials for the installation of home environmental control technology. Ultimately these training materials could be used by caregivers and non technical professionals.


Service learning that involves engineering students in the solution of assistive technology problems is a form of technology transfer that is mutually beneficial to both the students and the agencies that propose the problems. The students are exposed to real life problems. The opportunity to develop a solution that has the possibility of being implemented to help a person known to the students is far more motivating than simply completing an assignment at the end of a chapter in a book. Additionally, assistive technology problems usually contain many simultaneous and unique engineering constraints, such as mobility, function and aesthetics. Prior to these service learning activities, many students have only had an abstract understanding of these issues. By assigning more than one student group to each project, the students gain a better understanding of the design process whereby more than one acceptable solution can be produced. Students gain hands-on experience in fabricating functional prototypes and testing their designs in real applications. The organizations and agencies that serve persons with disabilities obtain solutions to problems for which they may not have the time or expertise to solve. They also benefit from having multiple solutions from which to choose, thereby allowing selection of the one that best fits their clients’ needs. This in turn increases the likelihood of successful projects and enhances the sponsors’ willingness to refer additional projects. It is not unusual for the sponsor to suggest refinements to particular designs or that the best solution may be a combination of the initial student solutions. A continuation of the project using a combination of the design ideas can be assigned to a succeeding class. Our experience shows that using service learning in an engineering curriculum is a viable means of delivering AT solutions to persons with disabilities. The basic elements of our approach could be readily replicated in other venues.


  1. Rice, D. A., Hirko, R. J., Hoffman, A. H., Ault, H. K., & Anderson R. C. (1997). Assistive technology transfer and the NSF Bioengineering Research to Aid the Disabled (BRAD) program. Technology and Disability, 7, 47-53.
  2. Hoffman, A. H., Ault, H. K. & Caltricala, R., (2001). The development of a regional assistive technology resource center. Proceedings of the 2001 RESNA Conference, 172-174.
  3. Purdue University, National EPICS, http://epics
  4. Hoffman, A. H. & Ault, H. K. (2003). Design course projects that aid persons with disabilities. Proceedings 33rd ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, S2B1-6.


We gratefully acknowledge the participation of the rehabilitation professionals and their organizations that continually supply our students with wide variety of challenging design projects. UnumProvident provided funding for some projects.

Author Contact Information

Allen H. Hoffman, PhD
Mechanical Engineering Department
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
100 Institute Road
Worcester, MA 01609-2280
Office Phone (508) 831-5217
email: ahoffman@wpi.ed


  • Source Ordered
  • No Tables
  • Very Compatible


Disney produced a television show in the mid 1990s called Gargoyles. It's a great show and I'm a big fan. A few years ago Disney started to release the show on DVD. The last release was of season 2, volume 1. That was two years ago. Volume 2 has not been released. Why? Poor sales. So if you should find yourself wanting to support my work, instead I ask you pick up a copy of season 2, volume 1. It's a great show and you might find yourself enjoying it.