Students design playground experiences for autistic children

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When Steven Goodall’s service in the Marines ended recently after 10 years, he knew he wanted to go to school to study engineering — specifically biomedical engineering.

Sophomore engineering students showed off their Introduction to Engineering Design projects to Rose Scripa, center. The projects were multi-sensory stimulation devices for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. 

He believes wounded warriors of the military should have artificial limbs of higher quality than they are today.

“Current prosthetic designs, although adequate, are becoming archaic and are not keeping pace with the technology of today,” Goodall says. “I hope someday to provide disabled veterans with enhanced mobility, which hopefully will result in reducing mental stress, through technological improvements of the rubber hand and plastic leg currently in use.”

Engineering 200: Introduction to Engineering Design class has given Goodall the means to start on his quest. Current assigned projects will help him attain a much-needed foundation with which he can begin to bring his goal to fruition. 

The EGR 200 class, taught by professor of engineering Rose Scripa, Ph.D., and research professor John Middleton, Ph.D., recently completed the sophomore designs, which were multi-sensory stimulation devices for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. The projects were inspired by a collaboration between Biomedical Engineering and the Christopher Douglas Hidden Angel Foundation. Patrick McNees, Ph.D., associate dean for research in the School of Health Professions, brought the two groups together. Students were asked to create a project that could potentially be used on an outdoor playground at the Hidden Angel facility in Gadsden.

This project became a personal one for Goodall and his team; his youngest son has autism.

“It was important to me to be able to possibly build something that could go in a park and affect children who have autism,” Middleton says. “When you think of doing a project like this, it’s supposed to be fun and creative. And it was very fun, but it was also very stressful. You want to be sure you’re covering everything so that you don’t let any other child be disappointed that’s playing with this. You want to meet every need — the touch, sight and sound. You want them to leave there feeling better than they did when they got there.”

Sandra Fornes is co-founder of the Christopher Douglas Hidden Angel Foundation and a founding member and president of the American Association of Multi Sensory Environments, which strives to promote awareness, access, education, research and science for people who benefit from multi-sensory environments.

Prior to the beginning of the project, Fornes talked to the EGR 200 class about multi-sensory environment methods, and Middleton talked to them about connecting user needs, turning them into engineering specifications and relating that back to design outputs.

“For anyone who has not dealt with individuals with disabilities, it’s very hard to understand what it feels like when you’re not getting sensory input,” Fornes says. “I was very surprised that a lot of the students in this class already have volunteered for organizations for people with disabilities or they’ve had siblings, relatives or children with disabilities. I really wanted to see their ideas and how they might help.”

For the students, it was an opportunity to begin thinking like engineers.

“My hopes were that the students would build something they could actually connect to a real-world need,” Middleton says. “I wanted them to take what the customer wants, turn it into design specifications, build a model to those specifications and then go and pressure test it against the original user needs.”

Goodall’s team designed and constructed a multisensory harp made of wind chimes. The design included a background featuring ceramic beads of shapes including moons, squares, circles and stars that turn different colors when the sunlight hits them. The goal was to use the shine of the objects to attract the children, and when they touch them, they feel a smooth, inviting surface.

The model also includes an enclosed handle system that slides a bar across the wind chimes and stimulates motor skills.

Goodall’s team also had a secret weapon for their project — Goodall's son.

“I brought him here during the week to let him see what was going on and to see how he reacted to it,” Goodall says. “It was a little research and development for the team to see what would work. I practically had to drag him out the last time I brought him here.”

Scripa’s past EGR 200 classes have completed projects including bamboo crutches — an application that was adapted for and is being used in Zambia. She is very excited about this project.

“This is a project with a purpose,” Scripa says. “We do not want students to work on a project just for the sake of doing it. Our goal is to assign and have students complete engineering design projects that ultimately will help people improve their quality of life.” 

Students also were required to produce a poster and present to the group. Scripa says being able to showcase work and explain the design process is a vital skill for undergraduate engineering students.

“Posters are a critical part of the communication process,” she says. “Engineering graduates are expected to be able to communicate poster and oral presentations and in written form. Students also had to submit a written report on the design project. Most students loved all facets of the assignment. They were enthusiastic about talking with us about their ideas.”

Scripa was highly impressed with the student designs. She especially liked the fact that the class had a clean palate from which to be creative. Most of the projects showed creativity.

“We just turned them loose with few constraints,” Scripa says. “They came up with amazing designs, incorporating engineering ingenuity and quality art work into the final designs. Seeing different disciplines come together like this proved to be a great experience for the students.”

Scripa says the course objectives are teamwork, introduction to design and communication. Throughout the semester, students were given assignments that addressed various aspects of these objectives, all of which culminated in the final project design.

“The teams did not disappoint,” Scripa says. “They excelled in all areas.”

Fornes is hopeful that some of the students might want to carry their design and development work further. “I have to talk to the professor and see if some of these students want to evolve their projects to the real thing and build it on the property where we’re building the outdoor playground.”