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Terri is a senior citizen in Natick, Mass., whose loves in life include good food and living independently. The fact that she relies on a wheelchair to get around can be a challenge on both of those fronts, though. In order to resupply her fridge, for example, Terri makes arrangements with the MBTA’s wheelchair accessible bus service to get to the nearest Market Basket grocery store. There she usually buys two to three weeks’ worth of food, weighing anywhere from 50 to 80 pounds. The cashier bags it all up and hangs the purchases from the two handles on the back of Terri’s chair.

 

Terri usually heaps the overflow on her lap. Then she waits for 30 minutes, sometimes an hour, until her ride arrives for the return trip. At home, Terri wedges her chair against a wall and tilts backward in order to unload the shopping bags.

Last spring in Olin’s Engineering for Humanity course, a team of students, including Andrew Holmes, accompanied Terri on one of her grocery runs to see firsthand the challenges she encounters. Holmes called watching the whole laborious time-intensive process “kind of terrifying.”

The course amounts to equal parts humanities and design, Holmes says, wherein teams of students pair up with older adults to get a sense of what it’s like to walk in their shoes and ultimately design a solution to a particular challenge they face. Andrew Holmes worked alongside Mica Chiang and Daniel Daugherty from Olin, as well as Sunny Chae from Babson College. In addition to the shopping trip, they visited Terri at her home, where she had engineered clever workarounds to reach items in high cabinets, for example.

Based on what they learned, the team decided to make something to improve the ease and safety of Terri’s shopping trips. They explored a few different ideas before arriving on the concept of a detachable frame fitted to the wheelchair. They presented a quick prototype—assembled from cardboard, zip ties, a PVC bar, and tape—to see if Terri liked the idea. She did.

From there they built a more robust frame that would attach to the back of her chair. Employing a handle on one side, Terri could release the frame to the ground, then wheel herself around it to unload her groceries. In their design, the students prioritized Terri’s independence; they wanted to create something that she could operate without anyone’s assistance. They also wanted her to be able to use the bags she already owned and not need to invest in more supplies. But when they field tested it in the grocery store, the team found the mechanism to unload the bags cumbersome, and the cashiers were unsure how to hang the bags—all useful feedback for the next iteration.

After refining their concept, the students presented Terri with a sturdy device they called Shop Drop Roll, with icons to guide cashiers and an unloading mechanism that Terri could operate independently. “We painted it purple,” Holmes says, “which is her favorite color.” Terri cried bittersweet tears at the event last May. “It kept an old woman independent and gloriously happy,” she says.

The experience was transformative for the students, too. They demonstrated the device at Olin’s Expo last spring, where “we also happened to be presenting to someone from Blue Cross Blue Shield,” Holmes says. From a healthcare standpoint, Shop Drop Roll allows Terri to buy fresher foods and reduces the risk of injury associated with removing bags from the back of her chair—and healthier individuals mean lower costs to health insurance providers.

The team also entered Northeast Arc’s first “Arc Tank” competition and, from a pool of 100 applicants, won a $2,500 award. The funds will go toward a patent application for the device, a project that Holmes will pursue in the entrepreneurship class Iterate this spring. Terri uses her wheelchair in ways that are unique to her, Holmes points out, and that influenced their design. “We want to learn how we can broaden the appeal of the idea,” he says.

Human-centric design gets a lot of attention at Olin, Holmes says. “This experience proved to me that it is a powerful tool when you know how to observe a user or user group, learn from them, work through the ideas together,” he says. “It also made me better understand the issues impacting older adults and some of the outdated systems and devices that are used. It’s an underrepresented category in engineering, and it would be really interesting one to pursue.”