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News > DP Festival > Industrial Design and Occupational Therapy Students Improve Seniors Citizens' Quality of Life

Industrial Design and Occupational Therapy Students Improve Seniors Citizens' Quality of Life

As part of the Design Assistive Device Project, students help community members with everyday tasks like dog walking, gardening and cooking.
21 Sep 2023
DP Festival
The EasyDig team developed the device to help their client with gardening
The EasyDig team developed the device to help their client with gardening

Over the spring semester, a team of industrial design and occupational therapy students worked with a 62-year-old woman who loved to garden but struggled to bend at the knees and kneel for long periods. The pain made her favorite hobby almost unbearable.

Through assessments, brainstorming and prototyping, the students developed the 3-foot-tall EasyDig. The device attaches to a cordless drill and allows her to dig holes while standing, reducing knee tension, hip bending and joint stress.

The team showcased the EasyDig in April as part of Jefferson’s annual Design Assistive Device Project presentation. Eleven groups of BS in industrial design and MS in occupational therapy students partnered to help senior citizens accomplish everyday tasks, such as walking the dog, getting into the tub and gripping a pencil.

“This really hits on the purpose of the merger of Thomas Jefferson University and Philadelphia University,” says Kim Mollo, associate professor of occupational therapy. “Through interpersonal and interdepartmental collaboration, students gain different perspectives and learn about each other.”

Having occupational therapy students engage with actual clients rather than hypothetical situations also allows them to sharpen their assessment skills on problem areas and, importantly, find ways to overcome them, Mollo says.

“For an industrial designer, it brings a higher level of awareness of the incredible number of people who try to improve the human condition,” adds Michael Leonard, academic dean of the School of Design and Engineering. “Designers tend to solve problems, but now they’re solving problems with other concepts.”

Student Zachary Quain provided a unique perspective on the EasyDig team. He graduated from Jefferson’s industrial design program and is earning his MS in occupational therapy.

“I’m now seeing the other side first-hand,” says Quain, who completed the project previously as an undergraduate. “Universal design is one of the principles that we worked through. We took something that we could apply to just about anybody.”

Quain’s teammate and occupational therapy student, Payton Cole, says the project expanded her design knowledge and is a “great application of all that we learned in our first year of OT school—how to ask the right questions and look holistically.”

For their project, occupational therapy students Kate Alonzo, Lauren Ettore and Serena Shim and industrial design student J.D. Duran worked with a 78-year-old woman with scleroderma, arthritis and vertigo. With limited hand use and risk of falls, the regular exercise of walking her dog had become difficult.

To solve her problem, they created the EZ Leader Dog Leash, which features a large, easy-release buckle to aid her weak hand strength.

The project helped Duran better communicate with those in need of assistance. Ettore agrees, “It’s a lot deeper when you work with a real client rather than a case study.”

Shim benefited by teaming up with a design student for the first time, she says. “It was cool to see us collaborate and think outside the box together.”

The Reach-N-Grab group helped a 66-year-old woman with peripheral neuropathy. Her decreased hand sensitivity makes it difficult to grip objects, leading to problems during meal prep and cooking. Their lightweight device with rubberized jaws can pick up bottles, cans and jars of varying sizes from high or low spaces without bending or straining.

Occupational therapy student Kayla Muasya says the semester-long project taught her patience and the importance of pushing through trial and error.

For fellow occupational therapy student Cobi Shaw, the work strengthened her desire to understand the problems individuals face and figure out the best ways to assist them. “These are real people here with struggles,” she says.

Industrial design student Nico Sawester says he gained a greater appreciation of the intertwined nature of the two fields and the importance of understanding user experience.

Leonard and Mollo, who run point on the Design Assistive Device Project, say all the students did an incredible job bringing their ideas to life. In fact, for the second year, the David and Lillian Rea Concept-to-Reality Fund allowed the teams to offset the design development costs.

“The prototypes were more robust than ever before and answered more of the problems the students were hoping to answer,” says Leonard, also an industrial design associate professor.

All these efforts didn’t go unnoticed by the seniors. The 11 teams partnered with nearby East Falls Village and UUH Outreach on their projects.

When touring the final presentations in the Kanbar Performance Space, Mary Flournoy, operating group co-chair for East Falls Village, described how she loved the concepts that will support the community members’ independence in their daily activities.

Sara Popkin, UUH Outreach executive director, saw the strong connection built between the students and her clients throughout this process.

“They were thrilled to work with the students and to give back in the development of things that will positively impact aging for people in the future,” she says.

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