Education - Page 2 - Using Technology To Make a Difference

- Page 2
Using Technology To Make a Difference
Schools use classrooms for social impact By Elizabeth Levy Malis, Contributing Writer While technology changes fast, one thing never seems to change. The human condition dictates that someone, or some community, somewhere, needs some problem solved for a greater good. Making social impact beyond the classroom takes center stage at many higher education institutions. Increasingly, schools find unique ways to combine academic learning with helping community. Due to the key role technology holds today, schools recognize and support students using technology to make a difference.

Annually, volunteer service-learning hours get put to optimal use at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC). Here, it’s a college-wide effort, with an array of majors taking part, including technology. The goal remains blending in-school learning with doing good in the community.

AACC supports these efforts through its Center for Learning through Service, which is a part of the Sarbanes Center for Public and Community Service at AACC. “It promotes a culture of community involvement by providing opportunities for students, faculty and staff to serve the community,” says the school website.

In particular, the Sarbanes Center Partner of the Year project engages the college in meaningful experiences in the community. Past projects include work with Hospice of the Chesapeake and Centro de Ayuda, among others. AACC selected local, non-profit HOPE for All (HOPE) as its Sarbanes partner for 2016-17.

Technology-wise, the 13 students – ages 20-80 – who enrolled in AACC’s advanced web design class did something the local charity could not do for itself. These students analyzed, redesigned and took live a new website for HOPE, which assists the poor. Last year, this charity helped 29 families and clothed 3,000 individuals. Now, with
an up-to-date website, created by AACC students, it hopes to reach more people in coming years, especially as a donor base.

“They beefed up our website. It gets the message of what HOPE is doing out to people. It tells the story – specifically stories of families we’ve assisted,” says Leo Zerhusen, HOPE executive director. “It’s been a great experience working with the web design class. Their efforts created awareness of what is truly happening in our county. There are people, tucked away, in dire straits. The AACC effort will open people’s hearts to donate to HOPE,” which helps people with AIDS, veterans, seniors, the disabled, the
homeless, refugees and school children. “We are a Christian-based organization, but we do not discriminate against any religion,” says Zerhusen. “HOPE for All is a very much needed agency assisting the poor.”

While one class focused on HOPE’s website, another class designed a brochure with updated graphics. The redesigned brochure got incorporated into the web design. “Every year, the whole school gets involved. This year the graphic design class created a new brochure. Then, we asked if they might like a website, too,” says Assistant
Professor of Art Erik Dunham, who teaches advanced web design. “It was a great opportunity to continue the work that was happening in marketing and design classes.”

To that end, Dunham’s class traveled off-campus to learn more about the charity. The students talked in person to people working with it and helped by it. The students completed content inventory, site maps, wire frames, wrote code, used typography and color. “All the things artists use, we use in web design, too” says Dunham. “But our
goal is to give the site a more user-centered focus. We simplified the navigation…made it more user friendly. We branded it to match other marketing materials also designed by AACC students.”

Dunham taught his students “web design tricks,” but reports that the site was “nothing fancy. Our focus is to get people to help [the charity] as fast as we can. We made the website easy and as functional as you can make it.”

To do so, the students identified different types of users for HOPE’s website. For example, “a corporation that may have over ordered ‘pillows,’ might need to find ‘who needs pillows’ [for a donation.] Technology can now take them to Hope for All,” says Dunham.

“Technology is really very powerful. Everyone  is walking around with a phone. The internet is in their pocket. You can use all this technology for good. There’s always an opportunity to help someone. The same techniques you use to send cat pictures, download music or buy books can be applied to donate furniture to someone in need,”
says Dunham.

Dunham describes the project as “fun,” but notes that it benefits the students, too. “They learn collaboration. In web design as a career, collaboration is super important,” says Dunham. In this kind of work, you need empathy for your users. You need to design for their feelings. We talk about empathy in design. When you build a website, you
solve problems for people.”

Do Good Remains All The Buzz

It all began with Erich Meissner’s grandma. Now, age 90, she took a fall in 2016. Fortunately, she could pick herself back up. But college student Meissner, who attends University of Maryland at College Park, knows that’s not always the outcome.  “Statistically, she was very lucky,” he says. “After talking to her doctors, I learned that most
falls come with syncope,” which is passing out or loss of consciousness. In such cases, existing technology (such as an alert system that advertises with the popular slogan, “Help I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”) won’t work because the person is not conscious to push the button for help.

Meissner had an idea. What if he could use technology to create a device that senses and alerts during a fall – with no button to push. “With an automated alert system, that device would know you have fallen before you do,” says Meissner, who set about to build one.

This effort was not his only foray into social innovation. Meissner’s track record is good. Previously, he built, patented and sold an internetconnected pillbox to a memory care community owned by a geriatric nursing company, with more than 500 locations.

Meissner calls his student-run enterprise Symbiont Health, which offers consumer medical devices that serve the elderly. The automated fall detection device has a patent pending.

Symbiont Health unfolded while he studied electrical engineering at University of Maryland at College Park. In fact, the school provided a path to develop his interest to use technology to make a difference in people’s lives – especially the elderly.

“One reason I came to University of Maryland is due to its Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program (EIP) program,” says Meissner. It provides University of Maryland Honors College freshmen and sophomores with an interdisciplinary, living and learning education to help build the entrepreneurial mindsets, skill sets and relationships
invaluable to developing innovative, impactful solutions to today’s problems, according to the school website.

“Our president [Wallace Loh] is passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Sara Herald, associate director of social entrepreneurship at the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, which exists as part of the Robert H. Smith School of Business. “We try to instill in our students the philosophy of giving back.”

Herald first met Meissner when Symbiont Health entered the school’s Pitch Dingman Competition. Symbiont Health won as a semifinalist. It became one of many small victories that supported Meissner’s desire to bring his idea to fruition.

“The school really pushed forward my idea,” says Meissner. “They gave me entrepreneurial resources and faculty advisors. It all pushed me further to reach certain milestones. A lot of my success has to do with the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship.”

Increasingly, higher education provides curriculum that allows students to make a social impact. Some schools, like University of Maryland, help students start up businesses that solve social problems.

The University of Maryland gives such efforts a common moniker. Meissner took a class called “Do Good Now.” In September, the School of  Public Policy launched a “Do Good Institute,” which may be the first of its kind on a college campus, say school sources.

It doesn’t end there. Toby Egan, faculty director for the Do Good Institute, speaks about University of Maryland at College Park as a “do good campus.” One big catalyst for such effort remains a school-wide event called the “Do Good Challenge,” created in partnership with the Do Good Institute and the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship.

“The Do Good Challenge is a big deal on this campus,” says Meissner. It’s a yearlong effort that engages more than 1,000 students across campus. It’s capped by an
eight-week competition where students encourage their peers to “do good.” Meissner worked along with a student team including Maria Chen, Daniel Rosenberry, Kyle
Liu and Nick Hricz.

The event remains competitive. “This year, we had 91 submissions for the Do Good Challenge,” says Egan. Symbiont Health placed as a finalist, which secured seed funding, among other things. In addition, Symbiont Health won the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences “Be the Solution” Audience Choice Award.

All this effort for Symbiont Health is “like a full-time job,” says Meissner, who estimates that he’s working at it 40 hours a week. Some days, he’ll talk to NIH, SBIR or TEDCO about grants. Other days, he checks on his grandmother and her retirement community friends, who agreed to wear a prototype of his automated fall device in development. “The algorithm works very well. It’s all about data collection now,” says Meissner.

“Erich cares so much about difficulties the elderly face,” says Herald. “He’s done so much research to understand it. His electrical engineering background gives him the skill set to actually build a complex electronic device himself,” says Herald.

Adds Egan, “Millennials have a strong desire to have a social impact. All students have the capacity to innovate.” •

Bike for a special boy

Through the years, instructor Lisa Ovelman, who teaches engineering and math at Harford Community College (HCC), shepherds her students to complete projects that
make a difference. “I facilitate, but the students do all the work,” she stresses. “If they go to all that effort, why not help someone along the way. It’s a way to give back.”

Three times her classes have used their engineering know-how to customize bikes for V-LINC, a non-profit whose mission remains to create technological solutions to improve independence and quality of life for individuals with disabilities.

“My students find solutions to a project that V-LINC presents to them. These projects have more meaning than anything I could assign. The students know their work will
help change a person’s life. This motivates them to create their best work,” she says.

In 2016, through a V-LINC request, her “Introduction to Engineering Design” classes built an adaptive bike for 17-year-old Ian Nohe, a non-verbal, autistic student at John
Archer School, in Bel Air, Md.

After a basic bike frame arrived, the task remained to modify it to meet Nohe’s individual needs. Ovelman gave students six weeks to complete the job.

First, the students met Nohe and his family. “They develop a personal relationship, which gives them a fuller picture. They see how engineering design can actually be used
by someone. It’s a project they will remember because they have met the person, seen them receive it and use it,” says Ovelman. Among other things, the students discovered Nohe’s favorite color is red. So, a red bike it would be.

They observed him using a Rifton Trike at his school, but he had nothing at home he could ride. “Ian would always sit out front, and watch all the other kids ride their bikes,”
says Miki Nohe, Ian’s mother. “I had been trying to get a bike for him for many years, but it was just too much of a stretch for me.”

Indeed, for Nohe to ride a bike requires multiple custom adaptations. Nohe is small for his age, standing four feet, six inches. Both seat and handlebars need modifications
to fit him. Students saw the value for a rear steering pole – a removable one—which gives a caregiver the ability to steer the bike until the boy got the hang of it. Straps for his
feet in the pedals, a headrest, back support, seatbelt and safety harness got added to the bike. So, too, did a parking break.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of their engineering project involved the addition of music. Nohe loves to listen to children’s songs. He uses the music to focus, motivate and calm himself. The HCC students put on the pedals a micro switch linked to a CD player. When the bike is pedaled, music plays.

Getting all parts of the bike to work in tandem remained no small feat. With assistance from David Antol, HCC coordinator for applied technology programs, students used the school’s 3-D printer to manufacture a one-of-a kind bike part.

Approximately 20 students helped build the bike. One of them is Sam Willits, who came from Australia to study mechanical engineering in the United States.

“It was great and extremely rewarding to see the project through, then give it to a very special boy. You could see his smiling face. He is one of the first ones in his school
to have his own bike. It’s a small thing, but a huge thing,” says Willits, who visited Nohe after the college class ended, just to see if everything remained in good working order. •

Top: The current Symbiont automated fall detection device (top) and a rendering of the future product.
Photo courtesy of Symbiont Health (patent pending).

Top left: Erich Meissner (second from left) and Toby Egan (second from right) with his UMD Do Good course team. Meissner brought the idea to the class where
interested students Dan Rosenberry, Kyle Liu, Maria Chen and Nick Hricz (pictured from left to right) joined in. Katlin Meissinger (far right) was also a teacher for
the course.

Above left: Ian Nohe and his new bike pictured with all those who helped make it happen, including the engineering students from Harford Community College (Sam Willits is second from the left in the front row) and their instructor, Lisa Ovelman (back row, second from right), owners of the Bel Air Bike Shop, Missie and Carl Wakefield (far left), representatives from John Archer, V-LINC volunteer Paul Oxenberg and Ian’s mother Miki.