Engineering social change through innovation in education

The way to make engineering students aware of societal challenges is by solving them

The lack of social concern among graduating engineers has led to questions into how the social and technical realms can be more closely linked. Among the many challenges engineers can address areenabling technologies to benefit developing nations.

These “social” problems can be incorporated into curriculum to emphasize that not all engineering is geared toward the next big thing in cutting-edge technology. Rather, there are many persistent problems that can be addressed by clever use of existing technology.

Dr. Amos Winter, assistant professor at MIT and Director of the Global Engineering and Research Lab, has been working to integrate innovation with social change. An example of this is enhancing the mobility of disabled people in third world countries.

The problem? Wheelchair users cannot navigate the rough terrain of developing countries efficiently using traditional designs.

The solution? A lever-powered wheelchair, called the Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC). Key to the innovation is simplicity. The user pushes on a lever for each wheel to propel the chair forward. The location of grip can maximize speed or increase power.

By grabbing low, a small movement equals a large angular displacement, and this allows higher speed with less effort. Grabbing high on each lever allows for greater torque with less effort.

The design was field-tested in various countries to determine its benefit. The most important factor in this testing was the users. The researchers relied on the users to give them feedback for refinement. The customer became an integral design partner.

For example, the feedback indicated that the chair performed exceptionally well during off-road travel, but indoors it was less efficient, being too wide and hard to maneuver. This lead to multiple design revision-feedback cycles to optimize the design for both outdoor and indoor use.

Winter suggests the innovation cycle, “has to start and end with end users.” The end users have to want a solution (the product), and furthermore, they’ll have to want to use it in its final form. This is where the student perspective can be affected most directly.

Winter has been working with graduate and undergraduate students to communicate with the end users and refine the design. The end user in this case is a very different client than most students would envision. Language and cultural barriers are not a deterrent. Good engineering is a language of its own.

Providing experiential learning that crosses social “borders” is probably the most effective way to curb social apathy. Just as it is crucial to have experience-based learning tasks in design, social awareness and the need to tackle many “basic” problems outside own our backyard is best done through personal endeavor, not lecture.


Dr. Amos Winter explains the development of the Leveraged Freedom Chair in the ASME video below.

Images courtesy of Global Research Innovation and Technology.