Dec. 7, 2015

Students design nanotech solutions for the elderly

poster presentation
Mark Vorreuter
From left, Moriah Shires, Eleni Toubanos and Heekwang Koo share Balancing Act, which uses gyroscopes and microprocessors to prevent accidents before they occur.

For their last class of the fall, students in FSAD 4660 Textiles, Apparel and Innovation unveiled their apparel and product ideas designed to help seniors prevent falls and minimize their harm, stay warm and alert on winter streets, and achieve greater mobility and independence.

“You get to be proud of your work,” said Juan Hinestroza, associate professor of fiber science and apparel design in the College of Human Ecology, to the four student teams pitching poster concepts to an audience that included four retired Dryden (New York) High School teachers who advised the students. “You get to be proud of applying your knowledge to help others. You get to be proud of using your innovative ideas, your amazing creativity, to find unique solutions to the challenges of seniors.”

In October, during meetings with project mentors Christine Baron, Karen Cunningham, Aiden Payne and Nancy Streeter, students learned about some of those challenges, ranging from hearing loss to hypothermia, broken bones, lack of balance, mobility issues and a feeling of dependency. Next, working in groups, students brainstormed how to apply new technologies to make a difference, focusing their research on the interaction between materials and design. Once each team agreed on a concept, students launched a development process, exploring aesthetics, performance, technical specifications, sourcing, testing, marketing and production, finishing the semester with the four inventions shown on their posters.

For Balancing Act, students proposed a three-part system to prevent falls using a set of gyroscopic shoe insoles, a microprocessor-driven waist belt and a Bluetooth wristband to provide GPS navigation, monitor heart rate and automatically alert 911 after falls. A second idea, Hearing Enhancement and Thermal Systems (HEATS), featured a multilayered knit hat that included microphones, amplifiers, photovoltaic sensors and fiber-optic threads to provide wearers with all the warmth of a wool beanie without muffling the street sounds around them.

With the faux-leather, gender-neutral Buoyancy Belt, students designed a way to lessen the dangers of falls, using a sensor to detect sudden downward movement and an airbag to automatically inflate as soon as the wearer begins to slip, cushioning the impact and preventing hip injury. For Bi-Yourself, students borrowed design elements from bicycles and office chairs to envision an aluminum-and-fabric wheelchair that can be easily raised, lowered and driven by a rider without the help of a caretaker.

As they did throughout the process, project mentors raised questions – Would you wear the belts under or on top of your clothes? How would you wash the hat once it gets dirty? – helping students to further focus their ideas.

Students were taught how to file patents with the university, but whether or not the concepts ever become reality, Hinestroza’s lessons to students and mentors were clear: New materials can be used to improve seniors’ lives, and by working at the interface between science and design, new solutions to existing problems can emerge.

“The thing I value most from this class was the time I spent with my partners,” said Joanne Kim ’17, who designed Bi-Yourself with Lauren Cramer ’16 and Rachel Jun ’17, inspired by her experience taking care of grandmother.

“Our ability to collaborate means a lot to all of us, because we’re not just classmates. In the future, we’re going to be peers in the industry, so I really respect what they have to say. I’m grateful we all had a hand in the project, and now that it’s done, we can look back and say, ‘That’s something we created together.’”

Kenny Berkowitz ’85 is a freelance writer.