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Students cREATe new possibilities at UNG for physically disabled

cREATe feature
UNG student Stephen Clack (right) and his fellow team members take measurements of their patient in preparation for designing a portable device that will allow the patient to sit upright with less pain, allowing for a broader range of activities.

Students and faculty in the University of North Georgia's (UNG) Department of Physical Therapy hosted nine industrial design students from the Georgia Institute of Technology and their faculty team leader June 29 through July 3 for a weeklong conference aimed at building innovative assistive technology for several clients with physical disabilities.

Dubbed "creating rehab engineering and assistance technology experiences," or cREATe for short, the conference involved collaboration between students, faculty, patients, and business and law experts. 

"This unique project opens up new realms of experience for students from both institutions while providing an invaluable service to community members," said Dr. Teresa Conner-Kerr, dean of UNG's College of Health Sciences & Professions. "Successful innovation is critical to both design and physical therapy. The outcomes of these students working together and learning from each other are strengths they will be able to carry with them throughout their careers."

UNG's Department of Physical Therapy enlisted the aid of Georgia Tech's School of Industrial Design to help students in the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program envision and manufacture these custom-made assistive devices, according to Dr. Alison Alhadeff, assistant professor of physical therapy at UNG and co-founder of cREATe.

"This project also provides an important opportunity for students to have an inter-professional experience as well as a means to provide unique, effective devices to patients for free," Alhadeff said.

Student teams were presented with clients with physical needs that ranged from combating scoliosis to controlling a powered wheelchair with the head. Using the physical therapy department's experience in creating devices, the groups experimented with different materials and structures and made adjustments with feedback from the clients and their families.

"When you combine the clinical knowledge and skills of physical therapy students with the intuition, intellect and design skills of industrial design students, it creates a great end-product that's going to be highly satisfying for our clients and will improve their quality of life," said Stephen Clack, a third-year student in the DPT program.

Teams presented their final designs on Friday; afterward, the Georgia Tech students travelled back to their home campus to spend two weeks building the prototypes, which will then be delivered to the clients.

"This experience has allowed me to work one-on-one with patients and families in our community, and has given me the ability to use my knowledge and training to critically think and problem-solve in real-life patient scenarios," said Laura Kight, also a third-year student in the DPT program.

Scott Prombo, a Georgia Tech student majoring in biomedical engineering and industrial design, said engineers want to enhance their resume and designers want to enhance their portfolio, so this project — with three weeks of intensive work and a deliverable at the end — will impress prospective employers. He said he also feels good about making devices that positively impact people.

"This class is very different from other design/build classes; this is really a class about assistive technology intervention, meaning the students develop a close relationship with their client," said cREATe co-founder Dr. Steven Sprigle, a professor who teaches design and disability design in Georgia Tech's School of Industrial Design. "Because of that, I hope our students gain a fuller understanding of the functional differences we all have. No matter what career they pursue or who they work for, that understanding will benefit them and all of us."

Home Depot in Dahlonega donated a gift card to be used by the Georgia Tech students for the materials they will need to build the final prototypes.

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