Professor of mechanical engineering C.T. Lin and CECS dean S.K. Ramesh traveled to Linz, Austria and Johannes Kepler University for the biennial International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs (ICCHP) July 11-13. Their participation in the event cemented CSUN’s position as a key academic player in assistive technology worldwide and the growing importance of the college in assistive technology engineering.
At the urging of Mary Ann Cummins-Prager, CSUN’s vice president of student access and support services, Lin had submitted a technical paper for inclusion in the conference. The paper, which built on his prior work with an autonomous wheelchair optimized for use indoors, emphasized outdoor mobility, which brings unique challenges relating to obstacles, dynamic lighting and variable terrain and surfaces. The ICCHP conference committee asked him to expand it into a full paper for inclusion in the conference proceedings. Lin, one of several hundred presenters at the conference, was the first ever from CSUN and the college.
“There were high expectations in terms of academic research development and a lot of good conference sessions and meetings with stakeholders,” he says. “CSUN is now a major player in the assistive technology field.”
The conference committee also invited Ramesh so he could familiarize himself with the conference and facilitate an exchange of information about the college. Committee members were especially interested in expanding ties with CSUN, which hosts an annual sister conference: the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference (known informally as the CSUN Conference), the largest and best-known conference of its kind.
The ICCHP conference was organized after its founder, Klaus Miesenberger, attended the CSUN Conference, and the relationship between the two events remains strong. Harry Murphy, who established both the Center on Disabilities and the CSUN Conference, has served on the ICCHP planning board for many years. Cummins-Prager has been a member of the program committee for the last eight years and has attended the ICCHP conference three times in that capacity.
The CSUN Conference, which is organized by the university’s Center on Disabilities, started with an emphasis on educational software 27 years ago but has significantly broadened its reach in the intervening years.
“Today it might include robotics, biomedical devices being used differently for people with disabilities—any type of assistive technology that allows people with disabilities to more fully participate in social, occupational and educational arenas,” explains Cummins-Prager, who oversees the conference.
The CSUN Conference is so well known and well attended that three years ago it moved from Los Angeles to San Diego, to a venue better able to accommodate the crowds, which typically number more than 4,000. It brings together practitioners, physical therapists, occupational therapists, rehabilitation specialists, teachers, vendors, end users, policymakers and anyone else with an interest in assistive technology, including representatives from standards organizations, the United Nations, labor representatives, the Veterans Administration and organizations soliciting feedback from communities of potential users.
CSUN’s Center on Disabilities has emerged as a strong partner with CECS over the past eight years, as assistive technology has grown as a focus in the college. The center partnered with CECS on the new master’s degree program in assistive technology (see sidebar). The center has also collaborated with the college on funding. A few years ago, it received an endowment from the Ethel Louise Armstrong Foundation that was earmarked for assistive technology projects. The endowment helped fund Lin’s wheelchair project with a grant in 2010.
“I believe the way forward in assistive technology will involve more engineering and computer science,” says Cummins-Prager. “So much will come from there.”
CECS TAKES THE LEAD IN ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY ENGINEERING EDUCATION
With the aging population and the large number of disabled veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, there has never been a greater need for assistive technology. To help meet that need, last fall the first cohort of students in CSUN’s new master’s degree program in assistive technology engineering entered the two-year program, and they now have reached the halfway point.
The program, which was developed by the College of Engineering and Computer Science, resides in CSUN’s Tseng College of Extended Learning. It follows the professional science master’s model, which provides advanced training in science or mathematics in an emerging or interdisciplinary area, while simultaneously developing workplace skills valued by employers, such as business, communications and regulatory affairs. Many members of the cohort are mid-career professionals hoping to change fields.
In addition to engineering, the program emphasizes the human factors necessary in any device designs. “If you design something that doesn’t really serve someone who is physically or cognitively challenged, they will throw it away,” says C.T. Lin, professor of mechanical engineering, who oversees the program.
Students in the program, which is self-supporting through tuition and fees, attend seminars, take part in internships and learn project management. At the end of the program, they will be required to produce a report based on their internship and case studies and give an oral presentation to defend the report, culminating a degree that will help them enter a job market focused on helping others.