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Wen Li, a second-year graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, shows how her team’s lighted walk paths to assist with safety would aid seniors during the night during Saturday’s Design Competition Showcase on campus. Photo by Steve Puterski
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Students, seniors meld ideas to engineer new inventions

LA JOLLA — Science mixed with real-life applications brought together two generations over the past several months.

Engineering and psychiatric students from the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of California San Diego and senior citizens from Carlsbad’s La Costa Glen retirement community saw months of work on display on Saturday during the Design Competition Showcase.

The goal for the students was to develop products to assist in the day-to-day challenges of senior living, while the seniors provided the feedback necessary to construct those assets.

“They interviewed us and after the interviews they showed us what they had come up with,” said Carlsbad resident Nancy Gardner. “It was great because the students did not know about seniors and what our needs were. I think these students have come up with some very, very good ideas.”

The winning project, which the students received $4,000 for, was a motorized shopping cart developed by the team calling themselves the “Fountain of Youth.”

In second place was AirSave, a jacket with foam guards along the hips and spine, and which also featured airbags that could be deployed during a fall to the ground.

Taking third was a team who created a lighted carpet, activated by the pressure of a person’s feet, to guide a senior from the bathroom to the kitchen or to the bedroom during the night.

Jun Lu, right, a student at the University of California, San Diego, demonstrates a device aimed at protecting seniors when they fall on during Saturday’s Design Competition Showcase. Photo by Steve Puterski
Jun Lu, right, a student at the University of California, San Diego, demonstrates a device aimed at protecting seniors when they fall on during Saturday’s Design Competition Showcase. Photo by Steve Puterski

Other projects included mobile apps to make taking medication easier. Another was a safety alert system, which relayed information to a mobile device in case the person forgot to turn off a stove, or other appliance or even close the garage door.

Regardless of the outcomes, the seniors were thoroughly impressed with the achievements of the students, and their creativity.

“A week before the competition started, my grandpa fell down the stairs and was in the hospital for two months,” said Gabriel Frischer of the AirSave project. “We wanted to create something that could prevent fall-related injuries. It’s a common problem and there is no widely accepted solution.”

Wen Li, a second-year engineering graduate student, was part of Team Vita, which developed the lighted carpet panels. She said after interviewing several seniors she and her partners realized nighttime falls could be fatal for seniors.

Their concept creates a lighted pathway in squares pieced together like a puzzle in one-square foot increments. In the case of a fall, the surrounding squares would be activated by the pressure, which in turn could lead to the technology sending out alerts to friends, family and even 911.

“They can create a path of their design,” Li said. “As you walk on it, the light will turn on. The light is so gentle it’s not going to hurt your eyes or wake someone up. If somebody falls, it will trigger four units, and that is an indication of a fall.”

Of course, some of the projects were not fully operational and all still were prototypes, but the long-term focus is get them into the marketplace.

Professor Truong Nguyen of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, and Assistant Professor of Psychology Maria Marquine, said the collaboration between students and seniors was key into developing worthwhile products.

The prize money, Nguyen said, is to push the students, who did not receive credit, into building functioning products.

“I think it’s been very beneficial for both,” Marquine said. “I was very invested in finding a good product, but I also see value from the interaction the seniors and students are having.”

“Engineering students normally just design something and think that somebody will use it,” Nguyen added. “We teach them the reverse. They are really learning the whole process of how a product is made.”

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