Rensselaer Alumni Magazine - Fall 2017 - 27
T HE O .T. SW A N SO N M ULTIDISCIPLINARY DESIGN LABORATORY
A L LO W S STUDE N TS TO EXPERIENCE THE ENGINEERING
WO R KP LA C E O F THE 21ST CENTURY-AND TO HELP PEOPL E
A LONG THE WAY.
WITH TWO WEEKS LEFT IN THE SEMESTER, THERE WAS STILL SOME FINE-TUNING NEEDED ON THE
DEVICE THAT DAVID WHALEN HOPES WILL HELP HIM USE A FORK AND SPOON FOR THE FIRST TIME IN
OVER 35 YEARS.
PHOTOS BY KRIS QUA
Whalen, a local man who suffered spinal injury in a 1981 skiing accident, had had some success with the
device, a metal gripper equipped with hand supports. He had used it to grab an item from a shelf and off the floor.
But the gripper was difficult to reach from his wheelchair because it locked into a fixed docking station. And,
because of his limited mobility, Whalen sometimes struggled to get his soft hand braces to attach to the gripper's
supports. He brought the design challenge to Rensselaer. A team of engineering students spent a semester
modifying the docking station so the gripper could pivot at angles they hoped he could reach. They replaced his
soft hand braces with hard plastic restraints they molded from Whalen's lower arms. And the student engineers
outfitted the right-hand brace with slots he could fit a fork or a spoon into.
"We got feedback from David," says Fangchen Liu '17, a materials engineering major, who viewed a simulation
on her laptop as teammates worked on their project tasks. "He needs us to change the attachments where he will
use the utensils, to make them closer to his thumb."
In place of a course devoted to just studying the equations and theories of mechanical, industrial, materials,
or electrical and computer systems engineering, Rensselaer's senior engineering students spend a semester in a
capstone design course applying them to solve a real problem.
In place of a classroom, they meet at the O.T. Swanson Multidisciplinary Design Laboratory to take on design
challenges for industry, service organizations, or entrepreneurs. Working in multidisciplinary teams of six to eight,
and coached by a professor and a highly experienced project engineer with extensive industrial experience, they
formulate the problem and conceptualize designs. They build prototypes and test their solutions in a fabrication
lab equipped with state-of-the-art machining equipment, 3-D printers, and other devices.
They contribute, as well, to a final written report and a project presentation before a review panel consisting
of project engineers, professors, and the sponsor.
"It's been really worthwhile to see the person whose problem we are trying to solve," notes Brendan Connolly
'17, a mechanical engineering student who with his team had visited Whalen at home half a dozen times.
"You definitely work harder because it means more."
RensselaeR/ Fall 2017 27