Students in the Erickson School’s Project 2061 class have high expectations for technology and its power to meet human needs. Working across disciplines, they’ve created new possibilities for the future of senior care.
By Dinah Winnick
It’s hard to imagine ourselves five years into the future, let alone 50. But one group of UMBC students has confronted this challenge head-on in search of inspiration for new designs to improve the lives of older adults.
Their course, “Project 2061” was spearheaded by the Erickson School, UMBC’s newest college. Founded in 2004, the school offers undergraduate and graduate curricula that combine the studies of aging, public policy and management.
The Erickson School created Project 2061 after being invited to showcase UMBC student research at a conference on the future of aging. The project quickly attracted faculty and students from engineering, information systems, design, management of aging services (MAgS) and interdisciplinary studies (INDS) to collaboratively develop new technologies for older adults living in the year 2061.
As it turns out, the endeavor’s success hinged on something simple and personal: students’ reflections on their own imagined future needs and desires. The class created three avatars based on students’ life experiences – “Abdulla,” “Ashley,” and “Spencer” – to help them explore both the problems aging can bring and how design can meet those challenges.
“Abdulla,” for instance, was based on Project 2061 participant Abdulla Aljneibi ’12, mechanical engineering. His avatar is 90 years old and recovering from a stroke that has left him struggling with memory, speech and motor impairments. Yet he is determined to live independently and enjoy activities such as cooking, daily prayer and going to the theater.
For Judah Ronch, dean of the Erickson School, creating personas like “Abdulla” proved the key to making Project 2061 click.
“This is always the challenge in teaching about aging,” says Ronch, “Until you make it about us it’s very removed. If it’s always about them, it’s highly abstract, it’s not very real, and there is not a sense of urgency about it because [typical students] are 25 or 20 and we’re talking about 60 years down the road.”
Everything changes, Ronch observes, “once you start talking about yourself and [asking], ‘How will this affect me?’”
BUILDING A TEAM
In May 2011, LeadingAge — a research and advocacy group focused on the lives of older adults — asked the Erickson School to create an exhibit on the future of aging.
LeadingAge planned a celebration of its 50th anniversary in October 2011 with a conference that would bring 8,000 participants to Washington, D.C. The group wanted to highlight dramatic changes in senior living from 1961 to the present, and also articulate a bold vision for the next 50 years.
Ronch says the exhibit “was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.” So he recruited faculty and students from across UMBC to create the school’s presentation as part of a new, boundary-breaking course in the Erickson School.
To teach the class, Ronch enlisted Tim Topoleski, a professor of mechanical engineering who studies mobility and the mechanics of joint replacements. Catherine Neylan, assistant professor of design, and Amy Hurst, assistant professor of information systems, followed, attracted to the course by their shared interest in design for people with disabilities.
These faculty recruited students from a range of majors. Neylan observes that technology and social problems are now so complex that “we need collective intelligence to build the things that we build.”
Eventually, 19 UMBC students joined the effort. Early in the process, MAgS major Joe Yoon proposed that the class should create specific design personas based on students in the course and then craft flexible technologies to meet those avatars’ specific needs. His idea was a game-changer.
“In all of our scenarios of how this would be used,” recalls Hurst, “we never said, ‘How would grandma use this?’ We said, ‘How would I use it in 50 years.’ I think that fundamentally changed a lot of the designs [and] helped the students be more creative and engaged.”
Yoon’s proposal also forced students to ponder uncomfortable possibilities. As Steven Hall, a junior majoring in graphic design, observes: “I don’t think anybody’s going to want to think, ‘What’s my life going to be like in 50 years? I’m going to have cataracts and be overweight. I’m going to have my foot amputated from diabetes.’”
The students had to deal with uncertainties about their lives and the world in 50 years. “You can’t take the current older adult population and simply throw them 50 years into the future,” argues Colleen Bennett, a gerontology Ph.D. student and Project 2061 teaching assistant. The project depended on young people confronting their own fears and desires for later life.
“Every generation is different, and then they age,” says Hurst. “Traditionally, people are very bad at abstracting and predicting what they would want in the future, but they can tell you what they want now and how they feel about things.”
REALIZING A VISION
The three personas gave Project 2061 students a concrete foundation to build on.
“Once we had a starting point,” says Aljneibi, “the ideas started flowing.”
The class worked quickly to conceptualize, research, and render designs for technologies to meet functional needs: eating, sleeping, hygiene, and entertainment/social engagement. Living environments in the future might be quite different, they reasoned, but basic human needs will remain the same.
Occasionally, there were hiccups. The blurred lines of interdisciplinary work and the indefinite nature of the problems that the project aimed to address frustrated some of the students, especially early in the process.
“You would think design and engineering would be closer, but they both want to have a product and their process is so different,” observes Meyerhoff Scholar Jasmine Jones ’12, computer science and INDS. At times, she adds, students misinterpreted their failure to communicate across a disciplinary “language barrier” as actual disagreement over ideas.
“They are beginning to learn that the real world is not as clear-cut as their well-designed classes,” says Hurst.
In four weeks, however, a dozen designs took shape, all of them informed by contemporary technologies and targeted to meet users’ specific needs.
One group devised a “Smart Closet” that reminds users with memory and other cognitive impairments when and how garments need to be cleaned. It also lets users know when they last wore a favorite dress or tie, and even what clothing is appropriate for particular activities or occasions.
Another design team emerged with a “Lavish Lavatory”—which auto-adjusts toilet and rail height to account for changes in strength and balance over time. The design’s flexibility means it can help communal facilities better meet the needs of diverse individuals. It also discreetly and unobtrusively monitors waste and automatically sends relevant health data to each user’s physician.
Eating properly is important at any age, so another group designed a “FoodPro,” that monitors the refrigerator and pantry, keeping track of grocery inventory, expiration dates and nutritional content. It also helps users prepare meals that meet their particular dietary needs, taking into account health conditions, lifestyle choices and food preferences.
These projects formed the core of the Erickson School’s LeadingAge exhibit— “My Surroundings, My Well-Being”— which centered on personal experiences with technology.
The student designers took the exhibit opportunity as a chance to demonstrate how individuals would use their products in home environments. They acted as docents to the conference exhibit, explaining to visitors how each invention would serve “Ashley,” “Abdulla” and “Spencer” in their future lives.
Helping people connect with the exhibit in a personal way was a priority for Aljneibi—and not simply because he lent his identity to the design process. He also belongs to a close-knit multigenerational family with a grandmother facing mobility problems.
“When she goes into the shower,” he says, “it’s always in our heads: ‘What if she slips? What if she falls?’” For his family, respecting her boundaries means resisting the impulse to help her in the shower. In what ways could his team’s designs enable her, and people like her, to more safely bathe by themselves?
Though he approached the course from a neuroscience background, Talmo Pereira, an INDS major and Meyerhoff Scholar, took the tenets of user-centered design to heart.
“Considering that the environment should adapt to the user,” he suggests, “the mutability of the environment is one of the things that will most compensate for differences in culture and preferences, and certainly limitations.”
The exhibit received an enthusiastic response from vendors, senior care professionals, and LeadingAge organizers, who immediately invited the students back for 2012.
FULL SPEED AHEAD
Creating an exhibit with an October deadline left everyone involved in Project 2061 with the question of how to best make use of the rest of the semester. Focus on prototyping the exhibit designs or generate new concepts? Continue team projects or pursue independent research? The answer was different for each participant.
Aljneibi chose to continue his team project on bath designs. “When I came to the States I wasn’t fine with communal bathing, especially in the gym,” he reflects. “I used the handicapped one because I needed my privacy.” For him, this experience— uncomfortable though it felt—was an inspiration. After all, if the United States continues to grow increasingly diverse, certainly consumers would appreciate flexible bathing technologies.
Steven Hall ’11 and Pavlo Yankovetz ’11, both in graphic design, explored how visualizing health data in particular ways may offer older adults a sense of self-awareness and empowerment. They argue that information can motivate or stifle health-seeking behaviors, depending on how it is conveyed. “If you’re just giving someone numbers, that’s not helpful or useful. We want those numbers to mean something,” says Hall.
Meyerhoff Scholar Deanna Easley ’12, mechanical engineering, worked to develop safer flooring for older adults, who are often injured in falls. Having broken her own wrist in a fall, Easley understood the mental and physical traumas of injury and lengthy recovery.
“People told me, ‘At least you didn’t break the hand you write with,’” recalls Easley. “But I’m a pianist. I need both hands.” With a deep understanding of how injury can wreak havoc on one’s sense of self, plus input from MAgS students, Easley designed flooring that would not only enhance safety, but also offer aesthetic appeal and emotional comfort to potential consumers.
INNOVATION STARTS AT HOME
Academic leaders at UMBC applaud the new class, arguing that it breaks new ground at a university already known for its commitment to promoting undergraduate success through active learning.
“Project 2061 represents a striking example of UMBC’s ability to create innovative and multi-disciplinary approaches to teaching and learning that address significant future challenges,” says Provost Philip Rous.
“In the process of researching real problems, our students not only gain knowledge, they also co-create knowledge and contribute to the field,” says Diane Lee, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education.
Connecting research to reality and realizing its potential for lasting impact isn’t simply a hypothetical draw to students. For Meyerhoff Scholar Jasmine Jones, Project 2061 is about “actually making a difference right now” rather than just “writing up a piece of code and turning it in.”
Ashley Johnson ’12, MAgS, who helped her classmates understand the needs of “Ashley,” a 111-year-old former psychologist who loves to garden and meditate in the year 2061 but struggles with dementia, diabetes and hearing loss, agrees: “I’m never asking, ‘Will I use this in the future?’ I know I will.”
Students aren’t the only beneficiaries of this work. As Don Engel, Assistant Vice President for Research, articulates: “Universities support research both to expand human knowledge and to engage students in the forefront of their disciplines. Project 2061 demonstrates how interdisciplinarity and a focus on real-world challenges produce compelling results and provide a valuable education to students and faculty alike.”
Part of Project 2061’s success, it turns out, was also rooted in participants’ refusal to play it safe. Not only did they take risks with ideas, but students and the faculty broke out of their intellectual comfort zones when they crossed disciplinary boundaries.
When you predict the future, says Ronch, “you have to be prepared to be wrong.” This kind of risk-taking requires what he calls “a special kind of iconoclasm: looking at a blank space and seeing what could fill it.”