Appalachian State University - Ergonomic Design for Special Populations

In Appalachian State University's Ergonomic Design for Special Populations, teams of students research the special population of their choice to determine the group's needs, problems, and the obstacles they face, then design an original product to solve one of the identified problems. Though Appalachian State lacks the resources to produce E-Teams that intend to commercialize products, several inventions have been produced in the class: an ergonomic keyboard, a hand-held MP3 player, and a shower hot air drying system for people with reduced mobility. Course enrollment grows each year, and the faculty hopes the course will become a requirement in the curriculum.

Program goals and structure
Students participating in this course have already completed an introductory design course. The Ergonomic Design course covers technical areas, including:

  • Ergonomic principles
  • Universal design
  • Research techniques
  • The use of anthropometric data
  • Test and measurement of design solutions
  • The use of cameras and computer products for high quality presentations
  • Problem-solving models

Teams of students research the population of their choice to determine the group's needs and problems, then design an original product to solve them. Professor Jim McLeod, who taught the first course session in fall 2000, says that his main goal was to get students thinking about issues of ergonomics. “We started by talking about the hand, since so much of what we do daily requires using our hands. Students designed products that would be easier on the hands, based on problems they had noticed on their own.” McLeod assigned the second design project around the topic of packaging. For the final project, students developed products for a special population.

The course involves some lecture, but primarily involves information-sharing seminars, model and prototype production in a lab setting, and testing and evaluation of solutions by potential users. The class meets in the Design Modeling Lab at ASU.

Students who complete the course, most of whom are not seniors, are asked to return the following year and present their projects to currently enrolled students. Contingent upon successful completion of course requirements, students may take the course up to three times.

History and context
The Industrial Drafting and Design program at Appalachian State formally began in 1994 with two tracks: architecture and product design. For the first five years, the program shared facilities with the rest of the Department of Technology. In 1998, Professor Edwards acquired a small room, formerly used for computers, and designated it as the Design Modeling Lab. With university funding, the lab was equipped by the summer of 1999.

In the spring of 2000, the university opened a new position in Industrial Drafting and Design, and hired a new faculty member, Jim McLeod. In the fall, McLeod offered the Ergonomic Design course as a “selected topics” course (not officially listed in the undergraduate bulletin) for the first time. Eight students enrolled in the course’s first session. Says Edwards, “It’s great to be able to offer another course. Sometimes we’re spread so thin we feel like we can’t offer the kind of depth we want. Even though Drafting and Design is a kind of new major, we’re now up to sixty-nine students enrolled in the program. We have a great department chair. The wheels of academia grind slowly, but we’re making progress.” McLeod says, “To this point, the architecture track has really been the primary focus of the Design program. Now that I’ve been hired and have started offering new courses, we hope to strengthen the product design track.”

Participants in the course are generally juniors and seniors majoring in Technology and concentrating in Industrial Drafting and Design. The course also allows for inviting students from other departments within Appalachian State’s College of Fine and Applied Arts to join E-Teams, when their skills can create an effective balance.

Professor McLeod reports that, during the course’s first semester, the students didn’t work in teams. Rather, they independently came up with product ideas to solve specific problems. “Because of the way their courses have been structured to this point, I wanted to give them a chance to do some work on their own.”

Professor Edwards says, “In the Industrial Drafting and Design program, we don’t have the best opportunities for developing E-Teams that will continue on to commercialization. Most of our students are shooting to get a ‘real’ job. We can try to get them excited about projects in class, but there’s no way to predict their follow-through.”

Innovative and entrepreneurial outcomes
According to Professor McLeod, students in the Ergonomic Design course produced some innovative designs. During the first segment of the class, students solved problems related to the hand. One student designed a combination MP3 player/radio that would fit comfortably into the hand. Stemming from a discussion on carpal tunnel syndrome and computer use, another student designed a “nest” keyboard, where the hand is stationary, using only subtle, joystick-like movement while typing.

In the second segment of the course, McLeod assigned students the task of packaging sunscreen so that it could be easily dispensed, thereby encouraging people to use it more frequently. Some students used a playful approach: one created a belt dispenser for hikers and campers. Several focused on the towelette concept, and one pursued the idea of a time-sensitive product that would change color when it’s time to reapply.

For the last project, students were required to develop a product for a special population. The definition of special population was kept open. One student designed a shower hot air drying system for elderly people and people with limited mobility. The system would blow hot air at the end of the shower to minimize chilling.

Students were limited by time and facilities in their ability to produce working prototypes. Some, however, produced partial prototypes.

Students in the Industrial Drafting and Design program have experienced other invention successes. Professor Edwards says that students have invented and patented a machine that holds, orients and rotates a piece of pottery so that a disabled person can glaze it. They have also created a lawnmower innovation, and are currently negotiating with John Deere over its adoption.

Challenges and lessons learned
Although the Department of Technology at Appalachian State is well equipped with computer, drafting and process labs, there is no dedicated space for Design students to work. ASU's facilities are available to all Technology students, sometimes making it difficult for Design students to schedule the time they need.

Professor Edwards advises other faculty members launching a project such as this to tap into the resources of the Industrial Design Society of America, which she has found to be extremely helpful. She also recommends assembling an advisory board, including people working in the industry. Edwards is still working on this task herself. She says, “It’s not easy to do up here in the mountains, where there isn’t much industry.”

So far she has identified one person for her board: an alumnus, who has already been a tremendous source of advisory and financial support. This person, who works in the binder and packaging industry, has offered $2,500 in prize money, set up as an endowment, for a semi-annual competition. For the competition, students create sketches, models, and sometimes prototypes of products to solve particular packaging design problems. Representatives from the donor’s company judge the entries. “The students come up with beautiful solutions,” says Edwards.

Future prospects
The Ergonomic Design course will be offered as a “selected topics” course for at least one more semester. Professor Edwards hopes that it will soon be added to the curriculum of required courses for all Industrial Drafting and Design majors. She says, “Now that we have a faculty member, and we know that the course is successful and that students want to take it, I think there’s a good chance we can give it a more permanent place in the curriculum.”

Professor Edwards recently secured funds for AV equipment. She hopes that extensive interviews with potential clients and interview documentation will become an integral part of the course. “I envision that they’ll pick a problem, and we’ll be able to send them to, for example, the Arthritis Foundation. Documenting the experiences will make the research more interesting.”

Professor McCleod believes that in future sessions of the Ergonomics Design course, students will take their innovations further. He says, “One of the primary things I want to do differently is to push them a little bit harder to take it to another level. I think they could have gotten more done. Next semester we will work on an idea I got from a retired industrial designer, for a public restroom door latch that you don’t have to touch. I believe this project will lend itself well to teamwork, because it’s something that everyone can relate to.” He adds, “Sometimes it’s difficult to get students to fully empathize with special populations when we’re working in ergonomic design. I’d like to find a system for helping them recognize the problems that special populations face.”

Next semester, McLeod will also begin teaching a Portfolio Development course in the Industrial Drafting and Design program.


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  • Dym, Clive L. and Patrick Little, Engineering Design: A Project-Based Introduction. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000.
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  • Green, William and Patrick Jordan, Eds., Human Factors in Product Design: Current Practice and Future Trends. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis, 1999.
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  • Kroemer, K.H.E., H.B. Kroemer, and K.E. Kroemer-Elbert, Ergonomics: How to Design for Ease and Efficiency. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994.
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Supplementary materials

Course syllabus: Ergonomic Design for Special Populations, Fall, 2000.
Course website: