Rice students’ design prowess in focus during World Usability Day

Students present at the World Usability Day forum in Fondren Library's Kyle Morrow Room.

World Usability Day at Rice University Thursday afternoon provided an opportunity to highlight Rice undergraduates’ remarkable design ingenuity and resourcefulness as they learn to create equipment and devices that serve important functions and audiences around the world.

Usually the second Thursday in November, World Usability Day promotes the values of usability, usability engineering and user-centered design.

Vice Provost and University Librarian Sara Lowman welcomed attendees to the forum, “Designing Technology Around the World,” in Fondren Library’s Kyle Morrow Room.

Emcee and Vice President for Administration Kevin Kirby recounted his firsthand experience with the importance of usability. He served in the U.S. Army research laboratory earlier in his career. “Usability for the Army is a matter of life and death; it’s not a matter of convenience,” he said. For Kirby, this included an experience testing equipment at the Army’s Cold Regions Test Center in Bolio Lake, Alaska, in temperatures below 60 degrees and realizing the clothing being worn by soldiers was too bulky to use the equipment.

Maria Oden, professor in the practice of engineering education and director of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, said engineering students at Rice are learning the importance of designing toward usability from the get-go in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. The OEDK is a unique engineering design facility for undergraduates. “We really liked the concept of a kitchen where you put together disparate things in a recipe and you create something that’s even better than the parts,” Oden said. “I see that happening at the kitchen all the time. It’s not just about the parts. It’s not about the equipment. It’s about the learning that students do. It’s about the teamwork that they do and working with real clients that have real needs, and our students are needing to learn and understand what those needs are.”

Oden cited the example of a low-cost, Rice student-designed device that helps newborns in respiratory distress in Malawi in southern Africa. Bubble continuous positive airway pressure (bCPAP) undefined devices are commonly used in the developed world to treat infants whose respiratory systems are underdeveloped or compromised by infection. However, at $6,000 each, the devices are often too expensive for hospitals in the developing world. The bCPAP device was developed in the design kitchen by seniors as their engineering design capstone project in 2010. Working in collaboration with the Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies, Rice’s bCPAP can be built for $160 and delivers the same therapeutic pressure as devices in hospitals in the developed world.

Students in Ann Saterbak’s Engineering 120 class are showing similar ingenuity. Saterbak is a professor in the practice of bioengineering education and the Department of Bioengineering’s associate chair for undergraduate affairs. Her Engineering 120 course requires first-year students to use the engineering design process to solve real community and global problems. Students are divided into teams that evaluate design requirements and create solutions in the design kitchen, and more senior students mentor students in design, leadership and communication.

Engineering 120 student projects showcased at the forum included a special robotic arm aid for reaching. The Robotic Assisted Reaching Mechanism (R-Arm) is helping a young patient at Shriners Hospital for Children who is suffering brittle bone disease, a genetic disease that prevents the proper formation of bones and causes them to be weak and break and that also limits growth. The R-ARM helps the patient conduct the simplest daily tasks. Another Engineering 120 project is helping a Shriners Hospital patient suffering from arthrogryposis, a condition causing underdeveloped muscles and stiff joints. Called the Shirtmate, the low-cost contraption allows a moderately able patient to put on a T-shirt without much movement and exertion.

Austin Govella, a design manager with business technology services company Avanade, also spoke at the event, which was sponsored by the Fondren Library Accessibility Committee and Rice University Disability Support Services. For more information about World Usability Day, visit www.worldusabilityday.org.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.