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Innovative educational collaboration between colleges to improve disabilities and enhance learning.


Interdisciplinary collaboration in higher education can produce valuable learning experiences beyond that of a single discipline approach. The University of Detroit Mercy College of Engineering and College of Health Professions have effectively collaborated yielding results that benefit not only the student but physically challenged individuals living in the Detroit area. Teams of engineering students and nursing students work together on projects to build assistive devices that improve the lives of people in need. This paper describes the techniques, goals and objectives used in multidisciplinary collaborative education. Students who have completed the course have described an enhanced understanding of how to effectively collaborate with members of other disciplines. Clients who have worked with the multidisciplinary teams have benefited by receiving assistive devices that have significantly improved their activities of daily living.


Interdisciplinary collaboration in higher education has the potential to create fertile grounds for learning beyond that of a single discipline approach. Additionally, effective collaboration can yield results which significantly impact human lives. This paper describes an innovative interdisciplinary collaborative effort between two university colleges: engineering and health professions. One goal of our collaborative course is to use an interdisciplinary approach to ameliorate challenges faced by physically disabled individuals in our community. Another goal is to help meet program and university curriculum objectives for our students such as improving communication and collaboration skills. A third objective of this interdisciplinary course is to enhance the education of our students in order to graduate professional, ethical, intelligent, and team focused individuals able to effectively improve the lives of others. In the following paragraphs we will describe the rationale, approach, and methods we have used to implement our innovative interdisciplinary approach to education.


Current literature suggests that collaboration across disciplines stimulates reflection, leads to increased awareness of one's own perspective, facilitates dialogue, and creates a common ground for both students and faculty (Oberg 2009). Effective interdisciplinary collaboration can foster integration and student learning. However, collaboration requires an active and deliberate process from faculty who traditionally have been highly invested in their individual discipline or department (Holley 2009).

Examples of interdisciplinary collaboration within similar fields are prevalent in the literature. For example, nursing commonly collaborates with other health care disciplines such as medicine, social work, or physical, respiratory, occupational, and nutritional therapies (Nelson et al. 2008; Syrett and Taylor 2003). Engineering often collaborates within the technical communities related to mechanical, electrical, civil, and computer specialties (Harvey and Koubek 1998; Wright et al. 2009). There is some evidence of collaboration across disciplines although this is less common. For example, computer engineers have collaborated with health professionals to develop technology used in advancing electronics to improve health care (O'Neill et al. 2004; Rantz 2005). This partnership continues to grow with the advancement of electronic medical technology. No literature was identified indicating faculty and student collaboration between mechanical engineering and nursing with the joint purpose of improving the lives of persons with physical disabilities.

The president of the International Society for the Systems Sciences recently proposed goals for systems sciences (Kijima 2008). He stated that in addition to interdisciplinary collaboration and synthesis of systems sciences, one aim of systems sciences should be the production of a shared map of differentiated and fragmented scientific knowledge from human, social, and natural/engineering sciences, in such a way that it can provide a transparent perspective of each. Another goal of systems sciences should be to relate various kinds of scientific knowledge that have different construction and acquisition principles, such as reduction, induction, and abduction, while stressing an objective, subjective, and inter-subjective view of the human being. Kijima (2008) suggested the advancement of interdisciplinary collaboration in the systems sciences could effectively be called "a 'new-generation liberal arts.' where we broadly understand liberal arts as studies of general knowledge and general intellectual skills rather than as those of more specialized occupational or artistic skills. Systems sciences then turns out to be something like an intelligent common knowledge for future generations" (Kijima 2008, 583).

King et al. (2008) have also acknowledged the growing trend toward interdisciplinary work and argued the need for additional collaborative work with community service organizations to provide local benefits. Improving the lives of individuals with physical disabilities in communities is an admirable goal of any interdisciplinary scientific team. Educating and training students to collaborate to do the same is the goal of interdisciplinary faculty working toward this end.


Physical disabilities affect 1.7 million people living in Michigan. According to the 2000 Michigan census, 8.3 percent of Michigan's working age adults between the ages of 21 and 64 are physically disabled (U.S. Census Bureau 2010). The U.S. Federal Government emphasized the importance of addressing this population by passing and later amending the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals With Disabilities Act of 1988, 29 U.S.C. 2201 et seq. (1994). Two objectives of this federal act were to increase the availability of assistive technology and the capacity to provide technology-related assistive devices.

Accordingly, the colleges of Engineering and Health Professions at the University of Detroit Mercy have collaborated to provide unique assistive devices to physically challenged individuals living in the Detroit Metro Area while providing an exemplary educational experience for our students. A team of mechanical engineering and health profession nursing students is paired with a physically challenged individual. The engineers design and build an assistive device identified by the client as being useful to improving the quality of their life. The health profession students evaluate the device and the client for any potential health related issues. The multidisciplinary student team works together to provide a safe, useful, and health conscious device with the goal of improving quality of life.



The interdisciplinary approach to meeting the educationa needs of students while addressing the needs of the physically challenged was initiated in the department of Mechanical Engineering (ME). The Capstone Design class (ME 493) is a two-term sequence course dealing with the solution of an industrial design problem. Mechanical engineering students work together in teams. The use of engineering design discipline is practiced by all ME students while business development is practiced by engineering students interested in entrepreneurship. The preparation and presentation of product proposals are central to the course, emphasizing communication and collaboration. ME students focus on technical details and specifications, and some students develop business plans and assess marketability of the product(s). The expected course outcomes are to develop the ability to carry out the design process starting with a recognized need, through problem definition and specification, culminating with a complete design package including assembly drawings and part prints. The course objectives are listed in Table 1. The professor for the course is determined to educate the engineering students to design products useful to specific individuals with physical disabilities. With that purpose in mind, the college of health professions was consulted.
TABLE 1. Objectives for Interdisciplinary Collaborative Course
(ME 493 & NUR 496).


College of Engineering                College of Health Professions

Recognize societal or business      Partake in the process of product
needs and properly formulate the    development as a health
corresponding problem.              consultant.

Conduct literature, patent, and     Educate team members on the health
standards search to establish the   related effects of client's
state of the art of a design        physical disabilities.

Carry out and apply the design      Examine the product at all stages
process beginning from a            for safety and health promotion.
recognized need and ending in a
final and complete design.

Separate complex systems into       Collaborate with interdisciplinary
major components and then apply     students and faculty throughout
the design process and              the design process.
mathematical modeling on each

Use state of the art computer       Facilitate interaction between the
software to conduct virtual         client and other team members
prototyping.                        especially pertaining to health
                                    related issues.

Work in diverse teams consisting    Provide health related expertise
of students, faculty, and industry  throughout all steps of product
sponsors.                           design and implementation.

Professionally communicate and      Professionally communicate and
present ideas, concepts, and        present ideas, concepts, and
design details.                     design details.

Health Professions

The first year of our collaborative effort, the college of health professions (CHP) faculty evaluated the proposed product design and its health related impact on the clients without student involvement. CHP faculty evaluated each client's physical, mental, and sometimes emotional state of health. In addition, CHP faculty participated in all stages of product design and development in order to identify potential health risks created by the newly designed device. The CHP faculty also educated the engineering faculty and students on the pathophysiology and symptoms of the client's disability. However, following the first year of our interdisciplinary collaboration it was determined that CHP students should also be participating in the process as a collaborative learning activity and not just using faculty as consultants. Therefore, a health professions course was deveioped to bring CHP students into the interdisciplinary process of designing devices to improve the lives of physically challenged individuals.

The goal for the health profession portion of the interdisciplinary course (NUR 496) is to collaborate with engineering students in ME 493 to safely construct a product designed to meet the needs of a physically challenged individual with emphasis on the health related components of the product. The objectives for the NUR 496 portion of the course are listed in Table 1.

The goal of our interdisciplinary educational effort is to teach collaboration and teamwork between disciplines in order to strengthen the educational outcomes for all participants. The collaboration between engineering and health professions in this manner lends support to Kijima's (2008) encouragement to advance interdisciplinary work in the systems sciences where one system is mechanical and the other human. This combined course could effectively be called a "new-generation liberal arts" class (Kijima 2008, 583).


The Client

Our clients are identified through a variety of means including the Michigan Department of Rehabilitative Services, referrals, and personal contacts. Our intent is to meet the needs of specific clients with unique needs rather than to mass produce a newly designed product marketable for the majority. One such client was a former Detroit police officer referred to as "G.S." G.S. is a 6 foot 6 inch man in previously excellent physical condition. However, in 1989, G.S. was shot in the head and he sustained injuries to the left temporal area of his brain. The resulting deficits left G.S. with hemiparesis (significant weakness and impaired movement) on the right side of his body. In addition, Wernicke's area, the part of the brain responsible for expressive communication, was damaged but Broca's area, the portion of the brain responsible for understanding language, was not. Thus, G.S. has the ability to understand language but his responses are delayed and slow, a condition known as expressive aphasia. G.S. is able to walk albeit slowly, but he drags his right leg and has almost no function in his right arm and hand. All of G.S.'s symptoms are consistent with a left sided traumatic brain injury.

G.S. had been employed in a mail room but his inability to hold objects in his right hand became problematic. G.S. was working with the Michigan Rehabilitation Services in an attempt to find work when he was referred to the University of Detroit Mercy for further assistance to help meet his physical challenges. The mechanical engineering and nursing design team met G.S. and began to conceptualise a device to improve G.S.'s physical disability. The idea was to create a device that would allow G.S. to hold objects in his right hand in order to increase his marketability and functionality in the workplace.

Designing the Product

The primary design goals of the device were that it would be durable, reliable, safe, and portable. G.S. and the design team identified options for the new device. The design elements were placed into "required" and "desired" categories. The required elements took precedence over the desired elements in the construction of the device. Table 2 shows the elements included in the product design. The engineering students developed a Block Ganatt chart which served as the timeline for the project. Health profession students provided evaluation and consultation throughout the entire development process.
TABLE 2. Elements included in assistive hand device for client G.S.

Classification of Desire  Specific Criteria

1. Required               Operate safely
2. Required               Improve quality of life
3. Required               Avoid doing more damage than good
4. Required               Durable
5. Required               Minimal maintenance (reliable)
6. Required               Enable ability to grip with right hand
7. Required               Lightweight
8. Required               Fit clients' dimensions
1. Desired                Incorporate left hand
2. Desired                Able to be put on and taken off with left arm
3. Desired                Adjustable
4. Desired                Last client's working career
5. Desired                No maintenance

Numerous iterations of the device were attempted and developed. A variety of wrist braces and gloves were evaluated for potential use. Different materials such as plastic and metal were assessed for use in the device. Battery operated and manual type devices were considered. G.S. tried the various designs for weight, functionality, comfort, and design. The engineering part of the team evaluated the effectiveness of the materials and functionality of the device. Nursing students evaluated the health risks versus benefits of each attempt. G.S's skin, bones, blood vessels, nerves and muscles in his hand and wrist were considered with each revision of the device. Bony prominences, compression of blood vessels, muscle constriction, and nerve impingement were all assessed to ensure intact skin, adequate blood flow, prevention of atrophy, and avoidance of nerve damage when each new device was tested. The complexity of the hand and wrist coupled with the challenges of building an assistive device for G.S. required the efforts of an interdisciplinary team with expertise in each of these areas.

After several iterations, satisfaction from all interdisciplinary team members and approval from G.S., a final design was created and accepted. The device was secured to G.S's hand using a soft wrist guard with Velcro straps. The unique assistive device was deemed a successful and effective product which allows G.S. to hold objects in his disabled right hand, an action he was previously unable to perform.

G.S.'s case is one example of a successful interdisciplinary collaborative effort in higher education with significant local impact to meet the needs of the physically disabled. G.S.'s physical disability was somewhat ameliorated through this innovative approach. His identified need was met and student learning was greatly enhanced.

Other collaborative projects have included a triceps strengthener to help a paralyzed man transfer to and from a wheelchair, a hip and knee exerciser for a man with worsening muscular sclerosis, a baby carrier that could attach to an electric wheelchair for a paralyzed mother, and a crib that opens sideways to accommodate a mother in a wheelchair unable to get her chair next to the crib when the rail was in the down position. Most recently, two of our interdisciplinary teams worked on redesigning a product that would allow a wheelchair-bound person to be more mobile in their chair. One of our clients, UDJL," has limited use of his arms, hands, and fingers due to a burn accident and requires assistance from other people to move his chair. The health profession students evaluated D.L.'s special skin condition, upper body strength, and mobility. They also researched and provided data on wheelchair use and disabilities in Michigan. The engineering students designed plans that could potentially allow D.L. much more mobility despite his inability to use his hands. The interdisciplinary teams met regularly to work on the project. Faculty were not present at these meetings for the purpose of allowing the students to independently solve problems, collaborate, assign roles, discuss ideas, and build relationships. Faculty were always available for consultation and led bi-weekly classroom discussions. The students presented their proposals to other classmates, faculty, and the clients throughout the process. The final products from the interdisciplinary student teams are showcased in a conference at the end of the course.


The lessons learned from this interdisciplinary collaborative educational approach to helping people with physical disabilities have gone well beyond that of a traditional classroom. The health professions students learn a great deal about the process of designing a product. The engineering students glean considerable new knowledge about health care and disabled people. Both sets of students gain knowledge and experience working on multidisciplinary teams, learning how to build relationships, improve communication skills, and utilize their collaborative expertise to improve quality of life. These lessons are invaluable as we graduate these students into the professional arena.

Students have voiced great satisfaction in using their expertise to help those in need and have enjoyed the collaborative experience. Students become personally vested in the projects. One student stated, '"This isn't a simulated project, we don't want to let the client down!" Another student wrote about the unique design challenges associated with '"not being able to completely understand the difficulties of the everyday life of the handicapped person." The collaborative projects help students understand how working together is valuable because clients are counting on them for results. The increasing number of health professions students requesting to work on this collaborative effort has also surprised the faculty. Although the health portion is an optional elective, several nursing students have signed up to take the course even without needing the extra course credits. This suggests students1 desire for interdisciplinary learning experiences.

The faculty from both departments work well together in educating the students. We have learned a lot from the process as well. It is not always easy to combine two very different disciplines having unique perspectives. However, with determination and purpose the outcomes of collaborative education are proving to be vastly rewarding for both faculty and students. It is our goal to continue to educate students using more interdisciplinary collaboration and, more importantly, to use those collaborative efforts to improve the lives of people in need, especially in Michigan.


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University of Detroit Mercy, Colleges of Health Professions and Engineering
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Author:Mcclelland, Molly L.; Kleinke, Darrell K.
Publication:Michigan Academician
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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