Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bravo - Real World Problem-Solving with Design and Empathy at Stanford University and UMass Amherst

Perhaps you read the article in yesterday's New York Times, which was quite appropriate for this special season and as we get ready to bring in the New 2014 Year. The article was entitled:   "Solving Problems for Real World, Using Design." However, you may have missed the article, also published yesterday, in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (DHG), on "UMass Engineering Team Designs Mechanical Arm to Help Northampton Kindergartener Feed Himself." The DHG is our award-winning local paper in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts.

The Times article by Nicole Perlroth talked about Stanford University's program at its design school known as the D.school, for short, with projects starting at a similar point and focusing on how to ease people's lives. According to one of the design school's founders, David Kelley, at the heart of the school's courses is the development of an "empathy muscle" with students being taught to look beyond computers and spreadsheets to focus on people. One of the successes of this program (others are highlighted in the article) is the product Embrace, which is a pouch  that assists newborns from developing hypothermia. Its inventors attribute it to helping to prevent 22,000 infant deaths. It is also low-cost. More info on this product developed through the D.school's very popular Design for Extreme Affordability course can be found here.

As for the other side of the U.S., here at UMass Amherst, a group of engineering students, working with a nursing student, gave Ryan Wade, a five year old,  his best Christmas present -- a mechanical arm that they designed and then built a test model of and had a final version produced.  According to the DHG,  “I like it and I love it, “ Ryan said the other day after he polished off a plate of grapes, pretzels and orange slices at his home on Union Street, using the device strapped onto his right forearm. “It’s awesome for me. Really, really awesome.” He can now feed himself. Ryan was born with a condition called multiple synostoses syndrome, a genetic abnormality that caused bones in his fingers, elbows, feet and ears to fuse, affecting the movement of his joints. The condition affects his gait and other functions, but the most serious problem for him is that he can’t bend his arms at his elbows, meaning he can’t bring his hands to his face. So, until now, he couldn’t feed himself without using an 18-inch-long extension for his fork or spoon, couldn’t wipe his mouth, blow his nose or brush his teeth.

 Ryan Wade with his mechanical arm    Photo courtesy of the DHG

The UMass Amherst engineering students designed the mechanical arm for Ryan (there were no medical options remaining for him and his mother is a nurse)  as part of a senior design capstone course with support from a nursing student and  under the tutelage of Professor Frank Sup and also Professor Sundar Krishnamurty, who is a neighbor of mine.

And, yes, they used computer models and even a 3-D printer. The printer laid plastic layer upon plastic layer to build the product. The 3-D printer that UMass has on campus made the first version in about a day. For the final product, according to the DHG, made of sturdier plastic than the UMass printer can make, the students sent their design off to an outside printer.

When 5 year old Ryan came to UMass Amherst to an engineering  conference room where the student inventors and faculty had gathered and he was offered Cheezits -- he reached and grabbed them with his new mechanical arm and the inventors screamed with joy. Of course, the professors were also ecstatic and, according to  Professor Sup “This is one of the reasons you teach a course like this,” “not only to have students identify how to use engineering skills but to really see how they can have an impact on an individual in the community.”

This is not the only invention to come out of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at UMass Amherst. A while back, a therapeutic vest that can help children with autism, ADHD, and anxiety  was also invented by Brian Mullen with advice provided by his professors.

I might add that these products are designed and built and are of great benefit to individuals, families,  and society at-large. Their creation also brings satisfaction to the creators and, as we say in Operations Research (O.R.), Doing Good with Good O.R. is very rewarding personally. Plus, I would add that, in developing math models, computer algorithms, and software we also provide design solutions for supply chains that integrate sustainability and/or corporate social responsibility to humanitarian ones to other important systems in our world today.

By focusing on people we can make the world a better place in 2014.

Congrats to the terrific students and faculty at universities who solve problems in the real world!

Happy New 2014 Year!