Trinity Engineering Students Engage with Community Groups to Prioritise People’s Genuine Design Need in Daily Life

Undergraduate students in the School of Engineering recently took part in an ambitious pilot ‘Service Learning’ module, working with community groups to help address genuine design needs.  Working in small design teams, the mechanical engineering students focused on solving universal difficulties experienced by people in the community related to their Activities of Daily Living (ADLs).

Following a user-centered design process, the students had the opportunity to experience, understand and use tools from the Stanford University Institute of Design’s D-School and other user-centred methods. The students developed a user informed solution engaging the end user early in the design process. Students interviewed people from the local community. They were also advised on design considerations by specialist consumer group representatives from the National Standards Authority Ireland (NSAI) and National Council for the Blind in Ireland (NCBI) – Working for People with Sight Loss.

Based on this user input, innovative solutions were developed to redesign the kettle, the toaster, the remote control, the wheelie bin, the plug socket and the iron. Other solutions developed included, thermally engineered smart clothing to save on heating bills for all by delivering heating more directly: a mechanism built into a staircase to carry bags up and down the stairs; and bracelets which vibrated to inform patients when and what medication to take and to alert the wearer to acoustic warning signals such as fire alarms. The module culminated in a competition where the students showcased their design solutions to the community members who helped identify the design problems.

“Implementing Stanford’s user centred design philosophy, along with Trinity’s user centred design approach integrating Universal Design principles, resulted in products and experiences better designed to improve the accessibility and usability for all,” said Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering, Gareth J. Bennett. “Universal Design is identified in Irish, European and United Nations legislation as a way to achieve accessible and inclusive environments and in Ireland the Disability Act 2005 established a statutory basis for a Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in the National Disability Authority.”

“Dr Bennett’s new ‘Service Learning’ module, Community Informed Universal Design for the Benefit of the Community, benefits students by allowing them to engage actively with the community, and by providing an opportunity to the students for experiential learning while applying academic knowledge,” stated Head of the School of Engineering, Prof Margaret O’Mahony. “Such curriculum reform and activity are in line with the University’s strategic plan and similarly the school is committed to reinvigorate the civic mission of higher education and to instil in students a sense of social responsibility and civic awareness.”

TCD Research Fellow funded by the NDA and IRCSET and an expert on User-Centred (UC) Design, Dr Sonja Hermann advised in user-centered design providing User-Centred and User-Design structure, lectures and learning related activities to the students. Senior Design Advisor, Products and Services from the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD) at the National Disability Authority, James Hubbard, also collaborated as an advisor in the development of this innovative course.

The new module, designed by Assistant Professor Gareth J. Bennett, was supported financially by a ‘Service-Learning’ seed fund for course development administered by the College’s Civic Engagement Officer, Roisín McGrogan.