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Engineering Student Builds
Learning Piano for Disabled Child
November 8, 1999

Engineering student Jeremy Shattuck has spent most of his days and nights this year in a laboratory in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, building his senior design project - a specialized teaching piano for a nine-year-old girl with physical and cognitive disabilities.

His labors came to fruition October 29, when Shattuck delivered the piano - a highly sophisticated programmable learning tool with music and a head that pops out from inside the instrument and speaks - as a special Halloween treat for Bianca Brown.

Bianca, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, is a playful and vivacious student at Village School in North Haven, a special needs school. She and her classmates were having their Halloween "parade" when the action stopped to allow Shattuck, in the presence of several news reporters, to present the piano to a visibly enthusiastic Bianca.

"I hope this helps her mental maturity and that she learns the basics of numbers and letters and that it's fun for her," Shattuck explained to reporters, after showing Bianca how to use her new toy. "This gives soul to technology."

Improving the quality of life for people with disabilities is the goal of a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation that enables student engineers at universities throughout the United States to construct devices like the learning piano. The program originated in a marriage of needs.

On the one hand, disability ranks as America's greatest health problem in terms of the number of individuals affected. Devices to aid disabled persons are often too expensive or nonexistent, or they may require custom modifications. Many disabled individuals do not benefit from technological advances that might help them, because the engineering and production costs to customize the devices are beyond their reach.

On the other hand, part of the accreditation process for university engineering programs requires that students complete a number of design credits in their course of study, typically in their senior year. Often called the capstone course, it brings together the concepts and principles previously learned and the student applies them to complete a specific project.

Seeing an opportunity to serve the nation's disabled population while engineering students completed their capstone courses, the NSF launched the Bioengineering and Research to Aid the Disabled program in 1988.

The program competitively awards universities grants that pay for supplies, equipment and fabrication costs of senior design projects, costs that in some instances run into thousands of dollars. Today. the program involves students from more than 20 universities, either modifying existing devices or building one-of-a-kind projects that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.

Last fall, John Enderle, a professor of electrical and systems engineering, was awarded a five-year, $168,514 grant from the NSF under this program. Each year, the grant will pay for 25 senior design projects that will offer a solution to problems faced by Connecticut residents with physical disabilities.

With the help of the UConn-based A.J. Pappanikou Center, the state's university-affiliated program for disability studies, Enderle's engineering students are provided access to a database of disabled "clients." The students select two disabled individuals to interview and then choose one of them for their senior design project.

What follows is a year of intensive work drafting specifications, creating a paper design with extensive modeling and computer analysis, constructing and testing a prototype, assembling the final product and field-testing the device, writing a final project report and delivering the device to the client.

"This program forces engineering students to stand on their feet," says William Pruehsner, a master's student working with Enderle as a teaching assistant for the senior design projects.

"It gives them industrial experience, meaning that they get a feel for how things work in the real world - ranging from dealing with clients, to purchasing parts to preparing time schedules for their projects," Pruehsner says.

Shattuck's specialized piano is among the first group of projects produced under the grant. It was designed to improve Bianca's mental capabilities but is simple enough to use to accommodate her physical disability, Shattuck said. It also should be fun for her, keep her attention, and give her teachers an opportunity to teach a broad range of subjects.

"This gives
soul to

Jeremy Shattuck
Electrical & Systems
Engineering Major

The piano is an electronic learning device that combines the use of flash cards and features to maintain attention, such as musical themes and a talking Tigger head - the Winnie-the-Pooh character - to help teach Bianca number sequencing, alphabet sequencing, days of the week, word-picture association, and more.

Some of the other projects made by Shattuck's classmates included a plumbing fixture that adjusts the shower water temperature for people in a group-home setting; a recumbent-style tricycle that allows a rider with an inner ear disorder to propel the vehicle with both a moveable handlebar and foot pedals; and a child-sized remote-operable train, retro-fitted to allow joystick steering for a child with limited muscle control.

At the annual Northeastern Bioengineering Conference held in Hartford earlier this year, Enderle's students captured top honors in the senior design project competition.

"This (course) transcends the typical engineering project, which may be accomplished entirely in a laboratory setting," says Enderle. "It's very gratifying and exciting to see students grow throughout the year, as they apply fundamental holistic engineering practices to produce something that will tangibly benefit another person."

David Bauman