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Olin program combines engineering, humanity

Olin students Justin Poh, right, and Lauren Froschauer, show a model of a possible solution for an assistive device to help a senior citizen remember to take her medications. Michele McDonald for the Boston Globe

While many retirees are eager to trade the harsh winters of Massachusetts for a life of leisure in the Sunshine State, Helen and Burton Cook recently made a reverse move. After 30 years in Florida, the Quincy natives relocated to Natick last spring to be near their three daughters for added support with health challenges.

Since the end of January, however, Helen, 84, and Burton, 85, have been receiving a different kind of assistance. They are participating in the Engineering for Humanity course at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham.

In the course, 11 senior citizen “community partners” work alongside eight students from three nearby colleges — with Wellesley and Babson joining Olin in the consortium — to design solutions to everyday problems.


The course has benefited both seniors and students. The elders enjoy collaborating on creative solutions to their challenges. Students come to appreciate what seniors face, and learn how to adapt their thinking to address real-life problems. And everyone involved says they enjoy the interactions.

Tamanna Ahmad, 2nd year MBA student student at Babson explains one of her group's opportunities for an assistive divice for senior Leslie Jose.Michele McDonald for the Boston Globe

Created by Olin professors Caitrin Lynch, who teaches anthropology, and Lynn Andrea Stein, who specializes in computer and cognitive science, the course is in its third year with funding from a Healthy Aging grant from the MetroWest Health Foundation in Framingham. While Olin previously partnered with the Needham and Wellesley councils on aging, this year’s class involves seniors affiliated with the Natick Council on Aging.

According to Lynch, the course’s mix of engineering, liberal arts, and business students provides a range of perspectives and skills to the process. And the intergenerational arrangement helps the students focus on identifying designs that match their community partners’ needs and values, rather than assuming their engineering expertise means they know best.

“The goal is to create solutions that make a difference by helping people live more happily and successfully in their homes,” said Lynch, who teaches the course with Ela Ben-Ur, an adjunct assistant design professor at Olin. “It’s hands-on learning that integrates anthropology with engineering design for social good.”


Early on in the course, students were familiarized with the physical challenges of aging by engaging in “empathy exercises” simulating arthritis, macular degeneration, hearing loss, and impaired mobility. They were introduced to their community partners at Olin, and got to know one another over dinners, activities such as bowling, and visits to the community partners’ homes to get a firsthand understanding of their needs.

During a design review session on March 11, Olin freshmen Justin Poh and Lauren Froschauer presented their ideas for the Cooks, who have been married for 63 years. To help Helen remember to take her three pills each day, they proposed a device with a buzzer and a removable, pocket-sized canister that vibrates at an appointed time.

To ease the pain that Burton suffers from neuropathy, which he likens to having stones in his shoes, they mounted balls of various sizes on a platform that rests on the ground so Burton can massage his own feet throughout the day, rather than wait for Helen to do it at night.

Team Fix It All — Babson senior Jeremy Liu, Babson MBA student Shubhangini Prakash, and Olin freshman Hayley Hans­son — is concerned about Nancy Geiser’s practice of gripping bottles with pliers and then using knives and screwdrivers to pry off twist caps. Their suggestions include a long-handled opener that provides added leverage, and motorized and slicing devices to break through the plastic seal on bottles and cartons.


“We want Nancy to have less pain, less worry, more control, and more freedom to purchase whatever she wants,” Liu said.

Geiser, who insisted she is “ready to adopt” her team of students, wasn’t the only one who praised their ingenuity.

“I wish I had one,” community partner Helen O’Malley said of the devices. “I can never get those open either.”

Leslie Jose uses a combination of crutches, a walker, and a scooter to cope with her severely restricted mobility from post-polio syndrome. She is working with Olin freshman Sean Karagianes, Wellesley senior Kathryn Kenney, and Babson MBA student Tamanna Ahmad to develop a tray with adjustable dividers that can be attached to her walker so she can carry reading and writing materials, food, and a cup of coffee.

Jose explained that the tray she uses now slopes downward and doesn’t have a rim wide enough to prevent items from falling off. Then she has to either kick them to her destination or wait for someone to come along to retrieve them.

“These kids are the top of the top. They have very willingly and openly wanted me to contribute to the project, and it’s been a joy to get the [brain] cells going again,” Jose said. “It’s changed my whole outlook. Before, I thought whatever you’re given is what you have to use. Now I think, let’s see what we else we can do. I feel so much richer for the program.


“It gives us seniors not only the chance to have a voice, but have it be listened to,” she said.

The students echoed Jose’s sentiments. Liu said he was unprepared for the elders’ level of need, but was even more impressed by the sophistication of their individual workarounds.

“Sometimes you don’t conceptualize that something like getting a coat on could be such a struggle,” he said. A native of California, Liu noted that the class has made him think more seriously about the practicalities of settling near his own parents as they get older.

For all the students, the next step is to use the feedback from community partners, their professors, and classmates to fine-tune their designs and manufacture at least one of the product ideas. The senior citizens will keep the finished product, which will be presented at the last class on May 2. Lynch hopes they will gain far more.

Since the inception of the course, she said, the collaborative process has resulted in ongoing relationships between the generations. Some community partners have requested to repeat the experience, while students have sought their feedback and participation in other courses as well.

Olin has further strengthened its relationship with local elders through a newly announced partnership with the North Hill senior living community in Needham. The North Hill-Olin College Fund for Innovation in Aging will broaden resident participation in courses, events, and similar projects that benefit older adults while providing a meaningful learning experience for students.


The social benefits are obvious. At the end of the design review class, for example, the students and their community partners chatted like the friends they’ve become. After learning that Poh wouldn’t be returning to his native Singapore for spring break, Helen Cook urged him to visit her, quickly adding, “It has nothing to do with the course.”

“Can you call a boy a doll? Because he is one,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be with the kids. You feel younger.”

In return, Poh and team-mate Frosc­hauer, who is from Los Angeles, enjoy being treated like surrogate grandchildren by the Cooks, who fuss over them and constantly try to feed them. Poh said he hopes to continue to work with the Cooks through an independent study.

“I’ve learned things from them that I would never get in the classroom,” he said. “A long-term friendship with them would be really nice.”

Cindy Cantrell can be reached at cantrell@globe.com.