A Model Undergraduate Research Program in Rehabilitation Engineering

Alicia M. Koontz , Dan Ding, Mary Hershberger and Rory A. Cooper
Human Engineering Research Laboratories, Highland Drive VA Medical Center, Pittsburgh, PA
Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA


Participation in an internship helps to socialize undergraduate students into a field or discipline by providing an opportunity to apply the knowledge they acquire from coursework to real-world projects.  To introduce undergraduates to the field of rehabilitation engineering we have developed a model Research Experience Undergraduate (REU) program where students work with a team to complete a ‘real-world’ research or design project in ten weeks.  Over this time frame they also attend several workshops and seminars that help them to understand the needs of persons with disabilities, the broad area of assistive technology, and career and advanced education opportunities. So far the results of the program have been very positive with around 10% of students each year going on to work or seek advanced education in AT.


education, students, university, mentors, training, rehabilitation engineering, assistive technology


In traditional undergraduate (a.k.a. bachelor) degree programs in the United States there is heavy emphasis on coursework and much less emphasis on providing the student with real experiences where they can apply newly acquired knowledge.  Undergraduate research programs are gaining in popularity and are designed to provide students with opportunities to actively engage in the “real work” of scientists and engineers by participating in the full research process from conceptualizing a problem, to conducting literature or product reviews, to collecting data, to analyzing results and connecting their meaning to a real world application (1).  Undergraduate research programs in the sciences and engineering are typically referred to as Research Experience for Undergraduates or “REUs” a term coined by the National Science Foundation (NSF) which currently funds over 700 REUs nationwide, 315 of which are in engineering, computer science, or a related field.

REUs are typically 8-12 week summer programs for rising sophomores, juniors, and/or seniors and have a focused area of research (e.g,. nanotechnology, biosystems, molecular engineering).  Students are paired with a faculty member and graduate student and work in a small group on a mentored research project.  In addition to the project, REU programs generally offer professional development workshops including such topics as scientific writing, ethics training, career options and applying to graduate school.  In additional to increasing retention rates (2), students who participate in undergraduate research may also become more proactive about their education.  For example, REU students at the University of Michigan were more likely to go to faculty office hours, find their coursework more relevant and study more compared to a comparison group of students who did not participate in the program (3). 


To increase the awareness of rehabilitation engineering among undergraduate students, we started a formal research internship program at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories in 2001.  In 2006, we received funding from NSF for the first REU program specifically in rehabilitation engineering (RE) called ‘American Student Placements and Internships in Rehabilitation Engineering (ASPIRE)’ which enabled us to further enhance and expand the program.  This paper describes the structure and content of the ASPIRE REU program in more detail with the goal that other researchers, clinicians and educators in the RESNA community involved with student or peer training can learn from our experiences.  



Students are recruited from multiple web sites including NSF’s REU page http://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/reu_search.cfm and a web site designed specifically for the ASPIRE program:  http://www.herlpitt.org/Internships/aspire.htm. In addition, a flyer is emailed to various engineering and science faculty and career placement offices at universities across the US. To be eligible for the ASPIRE REU, a student must be a US citizen, be a rising sophomore, junior or rising senior, have a major/minor in engineering, computer science, rehabilitation science or related field and have at least a 3.0 cumulative grade point average.  To apply, students need to go to the ASPIRE web site, complete an application form and one reference form completed by a professor, advisor, or supervisor and submit these materials to the program coordinator by March 1 preceding the summer they wish to intern.  ASPIRE, like other NSF supported REUs, provides students with a stipend, housing and travel allowance and thus students from non-local universities can apply and be compensated for their expenses. 

In line with NSFs goals to expand the participation of women and underrepresented students in science and engineering, the ASPIRE REU gives priority to these students in the selection process.  About 50-60% of ASPIRE’s applicants are women and thus recruiting women into the program has not been a problem.  A real challenge has been identifying students of underrepresented groups (e.g. African American, Hispanic, Pacific-Asian) and students with a disability.  We maintain a relationship with the Florida-Georgia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation as well as make additional efforts to recruit these students through contacts at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities as well as national disability groups that work to find internships and employment opportunities for students with disabilities (e.g. Workforce Recruitment Program co-sponsored by the US Dept of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy and the US Dept of Defense).  While we often have several students with disabilities apply for the program, we have been less successful in enrolling students who are not local to Pittsburgh even with the incentive of free accessible dormitory housing.  We believe that this is due to the inconveniences associated with short-term relocation such as transportation, attendant or caregiver care and personal support services.   The housing of all University of Pittsburgh REU students is coordinated through the University’s Office of Experiential Learning (OEL).  All the university interns are housed in one dormitory on campus.  As well the OEL coordinates a school-wide intern social program and ethics forum for the REU students.

Mentors and Projects

Project ideas are solicited from interested University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and collaborating industry researchers and their graduate students who have active research or design projects in AT/RE.  Each mentor pair submits a project description and desired student skills/background to the program coordinator.  The applications are reviewed by a team consisting of 2-3 graduate student mentors, the program directors and coordinator.  An initial group of students are selected from the pool of applicants based on their academic performance, skills, personal statement (what is their interest and degree of enthusiasm for RE/AT?), and their reference(s).  This initial group of applicants is divided into several sets of two or three applications and distributed to each mentor pair for their review.  When matching students to mentors we consider several factors such as pairing women students with women mentors and minority students with minority faculty.  We strongly encourage the mentor pair to conduct an interview with the student candidates which is generally over the phone before making a decision.  We have found this to be very helpful in delineating students who are truly interested in an internship in RE from those that are just ‘fishing’ for any kind of REU.  This initial interaction is also used to evaluate the responsiveness of the student, their interest in the mentors’ project and provides an idea of compatibility between the mentors and the student. 

The types of projects range from purely research (e.g, working with data) to product design and development.  Due to the short time frame of the internship, projects generally constitute completion of a sub-task of a larger scale project.  Examples of the intern projects in 2007 included the following:


To help our REU interns develop a sense of excitement of AT and RE, understand the process of conducting research, and become prepared for graduate school and future careers, we have devised a variety of educational, research training, and professional activities that involve close interactions with our faculty, graduate students, and industrial partners. Extracurricular activities are also arranged to foster better communication and interaction among the REU participants. REU students participated in the Pittsburgh Interns 2007 program, hosted by the Regional Internship Center of Southwestern PA (http://www.ric-swpa.org). This program has served to create a sense of community, networking and sharing across a multitude of REUs and industry interns. A summary of the REU activities are shown in Table 1. The last week is reserved for a special Undergraduate Research Symposium.  A requirement of the ASPIRE REU is that students produce a RESNA style conference paper based on their summer work and present their work in a 15-minute PowerPoint podium presentation at the Symposium which is open to all graduate students, faculty and staff.   

Table 1:  Schedule and Description of REU Activities





New Intern Orientation

Includes a welcome speech from a senior RE scientist and covers the REU requirements/intern expectations


Lab Tours

Students visit research labs at Pitt and CMU

Wheelchair Skills Workshop

The workshop covers an introduction to different types of wheelchairs and hands-on practice of wheelchair skills such as wheelie.

Welcome Picnic

Networking event, face-to-face interaction with all interns, faculty and graduate students


Medical Aspects of Disability and Aging

This lecture examines the characteristics of aging and medical conditions and diseases which result in the type of disabilities that can be ameliorated with appropriate technology. Incidence and prevalence of disabilities that result from the aging and medical diseases or conditions are discussed to identify situations in which technology may be used to lessen a person’s level of disability.


Ethics Forum

The objective of the Ethics Forum is to provide an opportunity for students to consider ethical practice in scientific and scholarly research through presentation and discussion.

Introduction to AT and Good Design Practices

This lecture covers the introduction to a wide range of assistive devices, as well as technical topics of design including CAD dimensioning details, part layout and assembly, tool and material specifications, manufacturing and rapid prototyping machinery and techniques.


Quality of Life Technology (QoLT) Center Overview

The QoLT Center is a unique partnership between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh that brings together a cross disciplinary team of technologists, clinicians, industry partners, end users, and other stakeholders to create revolutionary technologies that will improve and sustain the quality of life for all people


Introduction to Research Methodology and Statistics

This lecture covers the research process from beginning to end, in both laboratory and field settings. Topics include institutional approval and ethical use of human subjects; formulation of research questions; different research designs; and survey techniques.


Career Workshop

The workshop is to inform the students of career opportunities related to assistive technology and to prepare them for graduate studies or professional careers. A panel of industry representatives involved in research and service delivery are invited to discuss their career path and strategy. They present their insights and answer questions on how to prepare for graduate schools or industry positions.

Field Trip to Blueroof Technology

Blueroof Technologies use innovation, invention, and entrepreneurship to develop state-of-the-art living facilities that will keep senior citizens safer, healthier, and living independently at home as long as possible.


Technical Writing and Oral Presentations

This lecture presents basic technical writing principles of research papers and oral presentation techniques. Students will perform various exercises to enhance their writing and oral presentation skills.


Undergraduate Research Symposium

Each intern presents a 12-13 minute podium presentation of their summer work with 2-3 minutes of Q&A


Ice Cream Social

Farewell party with interns and mentors


Our recruitment efforts resulted in over 150 applicants for the summer 2007 program, over twice the number of applications from the previous year.  We created an on-line exit survey for the students as well the faculty and mentors to report to what extent that the program met their expectations and gather feedback on how to improve the program.  Table 2 shows a few of the questions that were asked and results from the 2007 REU surveys.  In general the feedback was very positive.  A majority of students who participated in the REU in 2007 felt that they received adequate mentoring, had sufficient resources to complete their projects, and increased their knowledge and experiences in RE/AT.  Many students reported that because of the internship, they feel more comfortable with the idea of applying for and attending graduate school.  When asked the question, ‘Would you recommend this internship to other students’, 100% of interns said ‘Yes’. 

All students in ASPIRE are encouraged to submit their final papers to the annual RESNA conference.  Last year five of the 15 students submitted their papers and all of them were accepted by RESNA and therefore attended the conference.  One ASPIRE student received one of the five PVA/RESNA Scientific Paper Competition Awards.  Another student’s paper was accepted for podium presentation in a special student paper session. 

We have devised an on-line follow-up survey and plan to contact past interns to find out where they are today.  So far, we know that 1 or 2 students from the previous years’ program (approximately 10%-15%) have sought advanced education in the fields of rehabilitation science with a focus in AT, rehabilitation engineering, or rehabilitation counseling.

We asked students to tell us what they thought about the program on the exit survey and this is what some of them said…

“It really helped to introduce me to the fields of assistive technology, rehab engineering, etc.  It also really helped me to figure out what my interests are and helped me to better define what I want to major in.”

“Working in the machine shop and being able to experience the process of thinking and adjusting a design, create a solid model, and then final machining the final product.”

“I enjoyed visiting the clinic and taking advantage of the opportunities to work with people. I am considering pursuing a career in sports medicine or physical therapy, and my experiences here gave me an insight into what it would be like to assist people.”

“Overall, this was a very good opportunity and I learned a lot about research, rehab engineering, and a whole variety of other topics.  I gained valuable skills that will help me in the future as well.  I would recommend this internship to anyone who is considering this type of engineering/career.”


  1. Kardash CM (2000).  Evaluation of an Undergraduate Research Experience:  Perceptions of Undergraduate Interns and Their Faculty Mentors.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(1), 191-201.
  2. Gregerman SR, Lerner JS, Hippel WV, Jonides J, Nagda BA (1998). Undergraduate Student-Faculty Research Partnerships Affect Student Retention.  The Review of Higher Education, 22(1), 55-72.
  3. Serwach J (2005). ‘Program Boosts Graduation Rates’ University of Michigan News Service, Article printed on June 1, 2005 and retrieved from world wide web: http://www.umich.edu/news/index.html?Releases/2005/Jun05/r060105


The ASPIRE REU receives funding from the National Science Foundation, Project EEC 0552351

Alicia Koontz
Human Engineering Research Labs
VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, Pittsburgh, PA 15206
Phone: (412) 365-4850, Fax: (412) 365-4858