Assistant Professor Frank Sup and Professor Sundar Krishnamurty of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department, in collaboration with associate professor Cynthia Jacelon of the UMass College of Nursing, have obtained a five-year, $125,000 grant award from the National Science Foundation. It will support a new interdisciplinary project format in the MIE 415 Senior Capstone Design course taught by Sup and Krishnamurty. The award, entitled “Integrative Capstone Design Experiences for Engineering and Nursing Students to Enable Independence for Older Adults,” focuses on developing assistive technology to help older adults, facing age-related disabilities, to maintain their quality of life. To maximize the impact and relevance of the students’ projects, a nursing student is part of each project team to provide clinical insight throughout the design process.

This award creates a new collaborative opportunity for undergraduate mechanical engineering and nursing students to partner in their senior capstone courses. The focus of their capstone design projects will be to develop assistive devices that will help older adults maintain their quality of life and independence. In this collaborative approach, teams of students will work with older adult clients from a retirement community to identify challenges they are having with Instrumental Activities of Daily Life (IADLs), which are as essential for independent living.

The need for such assistive technology has been brought on by the cascading retirement of the baby boomers. “With more than 10,000 individuals retiring each day in the United States, traditional avenues of aging and eldercare will be strained,” Sup explains. “Technology is being sought to help alleviate the shortfalls in both human and financial resources. At the same time, the next generation of older adults will have exposure to technology that can be used as a basis to build a new generation of assistive devices.”

A key aspect of the grant is the integrative experience provided to the students. It brings together students from different disciplines, clients with real needs, and faculty mentors to address the challenges. The team of Sup, Krishnamurty, and Jacelon expects the collaborative process with older adults as clients to enable our engineering students to develop solutions that are reflective of their customers’ needs and customized for their use. In this new approach, design teams will focus their efforts on core elements that are essential to maintaining quality of life, with particular emphasis on IADLs. The IADLs refer to eight higher-level tasks, such as meal preparation and shopping, and have been recognized as essential for independent living within a community, hence the reason for their focus in this project.

According to Sup, teams will develop solutions using engineering principles and nursing practices to create usable, economical, and reliable devices that fit into the daily life of the older adults. This study is motivated by the impending rise in the number of older adults in the United States and their desire to remain independent and lead fulfilling lives. Without assistance with IADLs, they will require increasing levels of support from family or institutions.

The grant creates a stimulating and collaborative environment for the proposed projects through the synergistic partnership among the faculty and students in the MIE department, the College of Nursing, and the older adults and staff at Mason Wright Retirement Community (Springfield, MA) and the Jewish Geriatric Services (Longmeadow, MA). The technology developed for these projects will have significant effects for the older adult clients at the participating retirement communities that serve the needs of low-income older adults and situated in an area of Springfield with a large minority population. The assistive devices created for these individuals will give them opportunity to maintain their independence that they may not have had for economic reasons.

“Many older adults have similar challenges that our clients will have,” observes Sup. “The solutions developed from the course may have commercial viability and offer the chance to affect the lives of millions of older Americans by supporting their independence and quality of life.” (September 2013)