Middle-school engineering students solve problems using empathy

Aasritha Duriseti demonstrates a bottle cap opener she designed to help her grandmother be more independent. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Ann Cameron Siegal

Aasritha Duriseti recently noticed her grandmother’s difficulty opening a bottle cap. By coincidence, an assignment for her eighth-grade engineering class at Carson Middle School in Herndon, Virginia, was to adapt existing products to make daily life easier for people with challenges.

Aasritha’s creativity kicked in as she researched existing bottle-opening devices.

“The rectangular shape and size of a cellphone is familiar,” she said, explaining the design of her wooden bottle cap opener. Three holes in different sizes, each lined with a layer of dried, sticky hot glue, provided firm grips for common bottle caps. With a simple twisting motion, her grandmother could open beverages without assistance.

While addressing challenges those with dyslexia, cerebral palsy, arthritis and other issues face, students in the class used more than their math, physics and tool skills. They also learned about empathy.

“Empathy is looking at problems from another’s perspective,” Aasritha said.

Teacher Mark Bolt said it’s an important part of engineering.

“Engineers need to put themselves in their product users’ shoes to build effective solutions,” Bolt said.

It was empathy, while watching friends and families tackle daily tasks, that prompted other students’ projects.

Arthritis, a joint disease, gave Roman Moreno-Hines’s grandfather trouble holding a coffee cup. So Roman simplified a robotic “third thumb” device created by London designer Dani Clode. Roman’s creation uses elastic bands and a 3D printed plastic form. “The extra ‘thumb’ can firmly support the bottom of a cup,” he said.

Rishab Nanduri’s father had back pain but still liked playing tennis. After creating a back brace prototype made of chipboard and smooth foam padding, Rishab’s fellow students tested it to give feedback. Some suggested he use spiked foam to add a massage feature to the device.

Rishab sees possible applications for his brace in sitting, standing or sleeping. “The worse your posture is, the worse the pain,” he said.

Michael Kuwashima noticed how dyslexia made it difficult for a friend to follow along on pages full of text. Creating a small adjustable window-blind style device, “My friend could isolate small sections of text while reading,” he said.

Sometimes just putting on a jacket or pulling up a hoodie can be hard for people with limited mobility, so Arjan Garg designed a “dressing stick” using four wood prongs of different sizes to fit different clothing.

Each adaptation went through several revisions on its way to being demonstrated. Rather than dictating step-by-step directions for creating their projects, Bolt preferred to leave students’ creative paths open. “If we want to do better, we have to have a chance to fail.”

– – –


Throughout the project, students followed the engineering design cycle, which documented the evolution of their adaptive device from prototype to finished product. That cycle includes these steps:

– Research the problem.

– Imagine by developing possible solutions.

– Plan after selecting a promising solution.

– Create by building a prototype.

– Test and evaluate prototype.

– Improve, by redesigning as needed.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here