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Blugold team competes in first-ever Assistive Tech Challenge

| Denise Olson

The right inspiration is sometimes all it takes for a competition to really heat up. For a team of Blugolds competing in the first-ever Assistive Tech Challenge sponsored by a Mayo Clinic collaboration, the inspiration was tangible: She was a member of the team.

Three students seeking to enter the competition first approached Dr. Doug Dunham, UW-Eau Claire professor of materials science and director of the Materials Science and Engineering Center, for guidance in developing a unique assistive technology idea to pitch. Dunham knew exactly where to turn for just the right connection: Vicky Thomas, director of Services for Students with Disabilities, who gave them the name of another UW-Eau Claire student who had unique needs as well as the experience and perspective to contribute to a winning assistive technology pitch.

“I was impressed to hear that a faculty member and students were proposing this practical solution that would assist persons with vision challenges,” Thomas said.

The team was specifically looking for a student with low vision who could provide feedback on a proposal to create a Bluetooth-based campus navigation system, and Thomas thought immediately of a senior who would be a great fit for the project.

Erica Nerbonne, a senior Spanish major from Eau Claire, was thrilled at the opportunity to turn her experience with vision loss into something positive for herself and others.

“I am a student who is legally blind,” Nerbonne said. “I didn't begin to lose my vision until I was graduating high school, so my first day navigating school blind was my first day at UWEC. I also have an autoimmune disease and was in a wheelchair at the time. I couldn't locate or reach the Braille signs on the walls, and I couldn't see to get from classroom to classroom.”

Nerbonne joined team members Blake Bomann, Kyle Wertel and Joshua Peterson, adding her skills and experience in troubleshooting and perfecting a prototype for the project.

Of 21 teams that applied to the Assistive Tech Challenge, the Blugold team became one of six accepted in the non-corporate division, all competing for one of two winning grants of up to $5,000. Limited to responses of no more than 280 characters, applicants were asked to respond to the following questions:

  1. What is the problem you plan to solve?
  2. How do you plan to solve it?
  3. Why is your team the right one to solve this problem?
  4. What do you need to develop your product?
  5. How would prize money be used to advance your idea?

The team set out to address the wayfinding problem Erica described, proposing a Bluetooth-based transmitter system that would translate the Braille facility signage to voice through a smartphone application.

“Low-vision students worry daily about whether they are in the correct classroom — a concern that nobody should have to deal with,” read the team’s response to the first question. “By addressing this problem of sign accessibility, we hope to alleviate this worry for these students, who want to focus on maximizing their education.” 

The basic premise of the proposed app is to transmit the information from a sign beacon to a voice message as a student arrives at a doorway. The message would say the room number, followed by an announcement such as, “This room is used for Psychology 101 from 8-9 a.m. and Economics 103 from 9-10 a.m.”

At the Assistive Tech Challenge, held Nov. 3 in Rochester, Minnesota, each team had five minutes to present their idea and recap their answers to the five application questions. Although UW-Eau Claire’s team did not place in the top two or win any grant funding, they see the experience as extremely successful, given the experience of presenting, the helpful feedback offered and the encouragement received to continue developing this project.

Team member Joshua Peterson, a junior materials science major from Eau Claire, handled the “how to solve the problem” portion of the pitch. He enjoyed the opportunity and appreciated the questions posed to the team by the panel of judges. 

“They asked how we planned to code the devices, what sorts of places could best use this technology and questions about customization,” Peterson said, adding that many audience members congratulated their team on developing such a great idea.  

Kyle Wertel, a third-year materials science and engineering major from Rhinelander, was grateful for the experience, the professional growth, and the general knowledge the team gained about the medical technology industry.

“We were able to see how companies present themselves and what they really focus on,” Wertel said. “It was also great to see how technology is evolving to help individuals with accessibility needs. It took our classroom experience and made it more practical, something that can make a difference in people’s lives. We learned that there are many non-medical job opportunities out there in the medical industry — a need for innovation and new technologies.” 

UW-Eau Claire aims to offer all students exactly this type of high-impact experiential learning opportunity, a skill development avenue Dunham seeks out for his materials science students.

“In science and engineering, being able to explain technical ideas to the public is an essential skill not often practiced at the undergraduate level,” Dunham said. “The Assistive Tech Challenge was a unique opportunity to have a group of students explain the need for a new technology and how they could provide a solution. The students did an excellent job, and I look forward to working with them to implement a prototype system.”

The student team hopes to continue to a prototype development phase over the course of next semester.

“The prototypes involve some initial device programming and 3-D printing of the device casing,” said Blake Bomann, a senior materials science major from Appleton. “We will be testing and priming the device with the ultimate hope that it could be implemented around campus next fall. Testing and implementation will be a joint effort between the materials science and engineering program and the office of Services for Students with Disabilities.”

“Success with the development of this audio app would increase independence and accessibility for Erica and other students, faculty and visitors with low vision as they explore our campus,” SSD director Thomas said.

Nerbonne is technically a senior, but will still be on campus to see the launch of the technology, and she is grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the team and for the personal satisfaction the project has brought her.

“I admit, it can be discouraging to navigate life with a disability, but knowing that there are compassionate individuals working to make this aspect of life easier is inspiring to me,” Nerbonne said. “I hope to be able to use this system in the future, and I am grateful to be a part of developing it.”

Photo caption: The Blugold Tech Challenge team presenting their pitch are (from left) Erica Nerbonne, Joshua Peterson, Kyle Wertel and Blake Bomann.