First-Year Engineering Students Work With Client on Real-World Project

Main photo: First-year engineering students Alexander DeGregorio, Ryan Wai, Ava Gami, and Gavin Flood demonstrate the sturdiness of the portable rehabilitation stairs they designed for the physical therapy department at Pen Bay Hospital in Rockport, Maine.

A group of first-year engineering students in Boston designed and built a set of portable rehabilitation stairs to address a real-world challenge of a hospital in Maine, as part of a collaboration with Northeastern’s Roux Institute in Portland, Maine, for their Cornerstone of Engineering course project.

As part of a first-year engineering Cornerstone course project, a group of students in Boston worked on a real-world project for a client in Maine through a collaboration with Northeastern’s Roux Institute in Portland, Maine.

The students, under the guidance of Richard Whalen,  teaching professor and director of the First Year Engineering program, designed and built a set of portable rehabilitation stairs for the physical therapy department at Pen Bay Hospital in Rockport, Maine

Aileen Huang-Saad, director of life sciences, health, and engineering, and associate professor of bioengineering at the Roux, says a number of students from campuses across Northeastern’s global network are working with the Portland, Maine-based campus and its partners.

“We have collaborations with healthcare institutions across the state that are really trying to address challenges that are not typically addressed by more urban centered schools,” says Huang-Saad. “Rich Whalen was really willing to think about how his students might work with some of our partners.”

Huang-Saad made the initial connection with Pen Bay Hospital medical doctors Nir Harish and Barry Howe, who in turn connected her with Katherine Marchessault., a physical therapist who had a need for portable rehabilitation stairs to replace a clunky unit that was difficult to move through the hospital.

With the scope of the project established by Whalen and the hospital team, the student group—Ava Gami, Alexander DeGregorio, Ryan Wai, and Gavin Flood—met virtually with Marchessault to understand the specific requirements and began their work.

DeGregorio, a bioengineering major, says the project enabled him to apply what he had learned about the engineering process. “A lot of Cornerstone focuses on engineering as a cyclic process where you’re finding a problem, coming up with a solution, testing it, knowing it might not work, and trying again,” DeGregorio says. “I think that very much applied to the work we did.”

The team selected wood materials to build stairs and a platform, added wheels to the structure, and constructed sturdy bars for safety and balance. They also made the unit compact enough to fit into elevators and be easily moved through hallways and into patients’ rooms.

The final product, demonstrated at the First Year Engineering Expo, met the client’s requirements. “It has been a pleasure working with these students,” says Marchessault. “I believe these stairs will be a game changer with assessing stairs mobility, allowing for earlier patient mobilization, and better overall outcomes with patient discharge planning.”

Whalen anticipates introducing another client-based project to Cornerstone students in the spring of 2025 and eventually offering more.

“I think this type of project really offers that something extra for our students,” Whalen says. “The students understand they are designing something that is not just for a grade but is going to be put to use somewhere.”

Related Faculty: Richard Whalen, Aileen Huang-Saad

Related Departments:Bioengineering