Engineering Degree Offers Community Engagement at NUI Galway

Friday, 29 February 2008

Engineering students at NUI Galway have proposed solutions to over 30 practical problems encountered by older people and the physically impaired. These community-based projects were undertaken by third-year undergraduate students at NUI Galway as part of their studies in Biomedical and Mechanical Engineering.

The projects are part of a service-learning programme, designed to allow students apply academic knowledge for the benefit of others. Running since 2003, this is the only pioneering programme of its kind in Engineering across the country. Among the ideas developed by the students this year are: an orthopaedic schoolbag; a self-locking medicine cabinet; a collapsible walking aid; a device to help wheelchair users manoeuvre a wheelie bin; a ring-mounted panic alarm; and a machine for making peanut butter designed for an AIDS centre in Zimbabwe.

Professor Abhay Pandit, Department of Biomedical and Mechanical Engineering and co-ordinator of the module: "We call this a 'service-learning' module, whereby students identify a need in their locality and provide a service related to their discipline, with the input from the local community, towards assisting with that need. As a university we have a duty to engage students with the community and to create an ethos that involves understanding and supporting the wider world."

In one of the projects, an outdoor exercise machine for the elderly has been created by modifying a bicycle and attaching it to a standard park bench. The device allows a person to sit comfortably on the bench, while exercising their lower limbs by pedalling.

This idea was developed by Mary O'Shea from Moore, Roscommon, after consultation with older people in her neighbourhood. According to Mary, "Exercise facilities designed specifically for older people are quite common in countries such as the UK, Australia and Japan, but not so much here. Feedback so far from members of the community and physiotherapists I have spoken to indicate the benefits of exercising in an outdoor and social setting would be significant. In Ireland, with a design like this, customisation of park benches would be relatively easy to achieve".

Prototypes for the some of the devices and ideas have been created and all have a descriptive poster which will be displayed in an exhibition entitled "Engineering in Society and Community Outreach". Each project and poster is assessed against rigorous criteria, based on the theoretical studies the students have already undertaken. The exhibition is being held in the Arts Millennium Building on campus.

The module is supported by the University's Community Knowledge Initiative which supports civic engagement across campus and is now leading a national civic engagement network. Around a dozen other service-learning modules are on offer in undergraduate and postgraduate programmes across the disciplines including Law, Italian, Philosophy and Occupational Therapy.

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