Two teams from Lawrence Technological University took first and third place in the SourceAmerica Design Challenge, a national competition to design workplace products that improve the employability of people with disabilities.
An LTU team won first place for its Cube XL Assembly, which nearly doubled the assembly output of employees assembling equipment to fasten pipes to interior surfaces on buildings. The device allows people who have the use of only one hand to perform the task.
Finishing in third place was another LTU team’s Clip Assembly Device, which allows people with limited hand function to assemble a clip used in automotive headrests.
Lawrence Tech’s sophomore-year engineering design studio class has been working for two years to develop products like these for Services to Enhance Potential (STEP), a Dearborn-based charity that works to boost employment prospects for people with disabilities.
“It’s incredibly valuable to us,” Steve Slayton, STEP’s director of business development, said of LTU’s assistance. “Both of the designs this year made big impacts for our clients. The tools that the students create allow our clients to do jobs that they were not able to do before, and allow our clients to really increase their productivity.”
More than 120 teams of high school and college students in STEM programs across the country competed in the challenge. Three collegiate and five high school teams were selected for the finals competition, held in early April in Washington, D.C.
A member of the first place team, Bram Ligon, called the competition “a pretty eye opening experience.” The sophomore mechanical engineering major from Rochester Hills said it was “really awesome, getting to work with the various subject matter experts and hear their stories about how other teams have developed assistive technologies for people with disabilities.” Ligon said the teams made their presentations in a conference setting with about 150 people present, before a panel of judges that included current and former staffers with IBM, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Academy of Engineering.
A member of the third place team, Victoria Pellerito, a junior mechanical engineering major from Macomb Township, added: “Beginning to end, it was amazing. The moments leading up to the presentation were nerve-wracking, but once we got up there and started presenting, it was great. You knew everyone there genuinely cared.”
John Bowen, a member of the first-place team and a sophomore double major in biomedical engineering and molecular and cell biology from Williamston, said the event featured a packed schedule of workshops and discussions daily from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., “and then we’d practice our presentations until midnight.” The teams also met with staffers of U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell.
The faculty teaching the sophomore engineering design class said the SourceAmerica and STEP relationships have truly brought home design thinking concepts for the engineering students.
“The relationship with STEP has made all the difference in the level of student engagement and ownership within the design studio,” said Cristi Bell-Huff, director of LTU’s Studio for Entrepreneurial Engineering Design (SEED). “Having real customers to empathize with and really create value for has made a lasting impact on our students’ professional and personal development as engineers. Serving customers with disabilities in particular helps our students get outside the classroom and outside of their own perspectives in order to solve a real world problem that will make a big difference in someone's life. “
Added Heidi Morano, SEED project engineer: “The value of customer engagement is two-fold; first, the ability to ‘put yourself in someone else’s shoes’ is a critical skill for engineers in this day and age. Secondly, that the student teams are able to see directly the impact that their design can have on someone’s life really seems to resonate and leaves a lasting impression.”
SourceAmerica, a national nonprofit with a mission to create employment opportunities for people with disabilities, hosts the Design Challenge annually. The contest is designed to bring greater awareness of the need and the impact of assistive technology in the workplace and encourage upcoming generations to develop an inclusive mindset.
Pellerito said her hope is that more can be done to help millions of disabled Americans find jobs. Only 17.9 percent of Americans with disabilities were employed in 2016, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to 65.3 percent of Americans without disabilities. She also said she hopes more colleges and universities can be convinced to compete in the SourceAmerica Design Challenge.