Specialization: Health and Well Being

Assistive Technology Intervention Class Makes a Life-long Difference

School of Industrial Design Professor Stephen Sprigle knows how to help people.

He's a licensed physical therapist who has spent a career in rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology design. In addition to teaching Industrial Design classes, he also teaches Mechanical Engineering classes at Georgia Tech. His unique design abilities tie these seemingly disparate academic disciplines together, and his undergraduate class ID/APPH/ME 4833 ATD Rehabilitation and Assistive Technology Design is the perfect illustration of what's possible when you apply industrial design to health and well-being.

In 2015, Sprigle organized the first Assistive Technology Intervention summer studio --  a unique collaboration between Georgia Tech's School of Industrial Design and the University of North Georgia  -- which drew students from Tech's Biomedical Engineering and Industrial Design programs as well as professional Physical Therapy students from UNG. The class will continue through the summer of 2017 thanks to a grant from VentureWell.

Registration for this Special Topics class is typically available between March and May. It consists of three semester credits and requires completion of one CAD class and one design class. The goal of the class is to provide an inter-professional learning experience for students as they collaborate to solve real-world clinical problems with a finished assistive technology product.And the students do it in four weeks.

"That's how intervention is," said Sprigle. "You have to solve a person's problem in a finite period of time."


Sprigle carefully identifies clients for the summer studio whose needs present a rigorous and feasible design challenge for the students. "This is a Georgia Tech class. We're not going to phone it in," Sprigle said.

"We don't present projects you could buy from Amazon," he said, "because there's no economy of scale in assistive technology and people with assistive needs are very functionally different.So as an intervention, it's a problem-solving class. Students with some design skills work with students who are trained to evaluate people and evaluate the function of people."

But the challenges of the class are grounded in the reality of their clients. For example, the first class addressed three client problems:

  • A man who suffers from lower back and coccyx pain needed a transferable seat to make car rides more comfortable
  • Aging parents caring for their immobilized adult son needed a way to lift him off the floor and into his wheelchair or into bed at the end of the day
  • A child with vision impairment and Dandy-Walker Syndrome needed a toy that could engage his interest as well as encourage upright posture

"In two of these cases, you can't get direct information from the user because they can't talk," he said. "The physical therapy students helped the Georgia Tech students engage with the disabled clients and their families." After two meetings with the clients, the design solutions became focused and the students could begin working on prototypes.

Unique Class, Lasting Relationships

There are so many unique aspects about this class, Sprigle said. Georgia Tech students deliver a complete product in four weeks while collaborating with professional program students who are 65 miles away in North Georgia, for clientele who are equally as remote. Sprigle acknowledges the cost and expertise investment offered by both institutions is also out-of-the-ordinary. Hands-on guidance and specialized fabrication education from College of Design Shop manager Tripp Edwards and Digital Fabrication Lab manager Jake Thompkins is "unbelievable to watch," Sprigle said. "I couldn't do this class without them."

Sprigle makes a personal investment, too. He knows that products built by students may not last forever, so he has taken the responsibility of supporting the class clientele for the foreseeable future. He will personally fix the products when they break and come up with modifications for evolving needs.

"When you intervene somebody, you accept that responsibility," he said. "You have to empower these parent so they can maintain the products. You have to weigh the benefits of the sustainability of the device."

"One of the student groups worked on a toy for a young boy who is pretty severely disabled -- he's not verbal, has a lot of upper extremity and hand limitations, he also has a seizure disorder," Sprigle explained. "No matter what they give this child's mom now, six months from now she may have to change it. So they had to design the toy in some kind of modular way, so that when he's not the same kid, six months or eight months from now, his mom can pop in a more appropriate toy. That's OK, that's what designing for kids is: knowing they're going to change."

Most students in this class will not focus on assistive technology when they graduate. Perhaps they may never work with a disabled client again, he said, "but they're going to have a fuller understanding of the functional differences that we all have."

"And that understanding, no matter what they go into, will serve them well."

One of that team's members, Erin Radcliffe, said the experience made a lasting impression on her. After she helped deliver the project to the client, his mother and physical therapist, Radcliffe was excited to learn that it kept her client engaged for over an hour. Their project even staved off the boy's normally frequent seizures during that time. The team scheduled a follow-up meeting after the class was over to deliver additional toys and mounts for their project.

Read More About the Class

The Gainesville Times: UNG, Georgia Tech students join forces to help kids with disabilities

University of North Georgia: Students cREATe new possibilities at UNG for physically disabled

AccessWDUN: UNG, Ga. Tech students team-up to solve special needs

The Gainesville Times: University of North Georgia hosts Georgia Tech for creative project