Learning by doing: Simple solution to complex problem creates award-winner at design competition

One student’s broken leg, creativity and the ability to simplify a complex problem resulted in an award-winning design project for two Appalachian State University industrial design majors in the Department of Technology and Environmental Design.

Seniors Sean Smith of Weddington and Zach Starin of Fredrick, Md., won second place and $10,000 at the annual Retail & Health Innovation Challenge held at Wake Forest University in Fall 2014. The event was sponsored by CVS.

Smith and Starin’s winning design is called MyO’Bility, a device for individuals rehabilitating from knee injuries. They came up with their concept, prototype and design business plan in less than three weeks.

“The competition called for designs for an innovative, retail medical product,” Starin said. Smith added, “We knew we needed a hook for the story, so we went with my experience in rehabilitation after breaking my leg last year.”

“We wanted some way we could tell our story and design a product that went along with that,” said Starin, who has had family members face rehab following knee injuries or surgery. “When Sean started talking about his experience, it clicked with me and we just took off designing our product.”

Learning by doing at Appalachian

Starin and Smith’s design is an example of learning by doing, which is strongly emphasized at Appalachian. Also called experiential learning, this emphasis actively engages students in posing questions, experimenting, being curious and using their curiosity to solve problems, taking responsibility and being creative. Learning becomes authentic, and often beneficial to others, when students are involved intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically.

Other learning-by-doing projects with practical benefits at Appalachian have included a therapeutic glove for children with limited fine motor abilities, students’ net-zero home that competed in Solar Decathlon Europe 2014, undergraduate research into topics such as the eco-friendliness of ski resorts, and the university’s more than 80 service-learning and community-based research courses each year that partner with local organizations.

How MyO’Bility works

Smith and Starin’s rehabilitation device is comprised of Polystyrene pads that attach above and below the knee with Velcro and have rubber tubing, such as exercise bands, that attaches to each piece, which provides resistance when doing leg extension exercise.

“You can use it in the comfort of your home,” Smith said. “The bands provide resistance when extending and contracting the knee, strengthening the muscles that support the joint.” As the exercises get easier, the bands can be changed to provide more resistance.

They showed their prototype to a physical therapy team at a local medical center, who expressed the product could be useful.

Erich Schlenker, managing director of the Transportation Insight Center for Entrepreneurship located in the Walker College of Business, helped the students develop their business plan. “The center has a very productive collaboration with the Department of Technology and Environmental Design’s industrial design program,” he said.

“All the App State competitors had great designs and had put a lot of thought into their target markets,” Schlenker said. “The industrial design curriculum promotes creativity and practical design work. Students arrive at the center prepared and their designs are solid. We make a great team.”

700,000 Americans each year have knee surgery

Armed with statistics – 700,000 Americans each year will have knee surgery and millions more will have knee injuries requiring rehabilitation – and Smith’s “emotional appeal” about his experience with a leg injury, the students honed their two-minute pitch for the competition’s judges.

“I think it’s a really good working model. It definitely does what it’s intended to do,” Starin said. Both students said they enjoyed the challenge the industrial design process presents.

They knew they had a strong design when the judges stopped asking questions about the design and began offering suggestions on how to move the product into development. With that feedback and their prize money, Smith and Starin are planning to patent their design with assistance.

It will be Smith’s third patent application. Working with his father, who owns an industrial design/engineering company in Weddington, Smith designed and patented a flash caddy that medical facilities can use to sterilize USB drives with ultraviolet light. He also is seeking a patent for an outlet track he designed as part of a design class that would make it easier for individuals to access outlet sockets.

While Smith and Starin have yet to decide what they will do after graduation, they and the other finalists from Appalachian have been invited to apply for scholarships to Wake Forest University’s accelerated Master of Arts degree program in business management.

Three teams from Appalachian competed at the Retail & Health Innovation Challenge. Third place and $5,000 was awarded to L. Austin Waggoner, a senior industrial design major from Gastonia, and Sam Utesch, a senior management major from Greensboro, for their environmentally conscious food storage product.

Industrial design majors Sheilla Sanon and Kaitlin Williard were competition semi-finalists. Their product was a dishware concept designed to address the needs of a person recovering from an eating disorder.

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