lin_ct.jpgMore than 36 million Americans are estimated to have some kind of disability, including over 3.7 million Californians. These figures are expected to skyrocket over the next few decades as baby boomers continue to age and life expectancy increases. Paralleling this increase, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, will be significant career opportunities in health services industries, such as assistive and adaptive technologies. Ironically, however, educational programs in this emerging field are scarce.

“If you were to do a search, you couldn’t find a master’s level degree program in assistive technology on the West Coast,” says C.T. Lin, a professor of mechanical engineering.

That’s why CSUN is inaugurating a new master’s degree program to meet the need in assistive technology engineering. “In a way, this program is really creating the workforce, which is very much needed in the field,” says Lin, who serves as the program’s academic coordinator.

Assistive technology engineering is focused on improving the functional capabilities of people who require assistive technology devices. Engineering experts create the devices that enable these individuals to function in healthcare, educational, work and home environments. Because the field is interdisciplinary by nature, CSUN’s new program is a collaboration among the College of Engineering and Computer Science; College of Health and Human Development; and Tseng College, home to the university’s extended education programs. It builds upon CSUN’s established reputation in disabilities services, including physical and exercise therapy, deafness education, communication disorders, biotechnology engineering and design, computer science and psychology.

sideF.jpgPlanning for the program began in summer 2007 and quickly gained momentum, with strong industry support. Curriculum development, which included the creation of brand-new courses with an engineering emphasis in assistive technology, took more than a year, and it was another year until the program received all the approvals necessary in the college, on campus and in the Chancellor’s Office.

Designed for working professionals, the program is structured around a cohort model; all students in a given cohort will take the same classes together, meeting once a week and occasionally on Saturdays, typically earning their degrees in two years. One of its distinguishing characteristics is its linkage to a sister master’s degree program in assistive technology and human services, which focuses on assessing and counseling those with disabilities. The two programs share three core courses, which encourages students from both tracks to interact and collaborate on classroom projects.

“It’s really important to have the end user involved in the loop before we produce a product,” says Lin. “We could develop a medical device, for example, which the user could easily reject if we don’t talk beforehand to make sure he or she likes and accepts the design.”

Graduates of the program, which will debut in fall 2011, will likely land jobs in biomedical engineering, medical device companies, design and manufacturing and perhaps in government agencies. But the biggest beneficiaries will be the men, women and children with disabilities, who find that their special needs are being met in new and innovative ways and who are able, as a result, to lead more independent, productive and fulfilling lives.