Engineering: Empathy in Action

Following a robust professional development experience at Columbia University's Robotics and Rehabilitation (RoAR) Lab, Upper School Science Teacher Aruna Chavali was inspired to develop a meaningful culminating project for her senior elective, Engineering: Interaction Design. Working in groups of three, the engineering students were asked to design and prototype an assistive robotic device to aid a neurologically-impaired “client” complete a specific task. Client profiles included an elderly man with Parkinson’s who needs help dressing himself; an 11-year-old girl with Cerebral Palsy who needs a mechanized writing utensil; and a young man with ALS who needs a multi-purpose reach assist tool. Ultimately, students would create tools to preserve the dignity and independence of their clients, allowing them to use their engineering skills to fulfill the goal of the year, “That all may have life, and have it to the full.”

Before they actually began to design, students learned firsthand the impact of these diseases on the patient and their caregivers. Through a series of guest speakers and field trips, they developed empathy for their clients. As Trinity C. ’19 explains, “One of our guest speakers was our teacher who cared for his father with Parkinson’s. That made the project really personal for me as I started to truly understand their struggle to perform daily tasks and how the disease can also affect someone’s emotional well-being. It made me feel like our device could make a real difference in our client’s life.”

This connection was exactly what Ms. Chavali intended. “Research has shown that young women do not pursue engineering as a career because of the perception that the field doesn’t help others -- at least not in the way medicine does,” Ms. Chavali explains. “But in my mind, engineering is all about improving quality of life and working toward the greater good of humanity. This assistive robotics project demonstrates exactly that: that engineering is a field that can unite a student’s passion for science with her desire to serve others and live out the mission of the School. ”