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Student Inventors Tackle Elder Mobility Hurdles

Young winners of Stanford's design contest build practical solutions

By Rhoda Fukushima

When Nicholas Steigmann and Maiya Jensen heard about the 2015 Stanford Longevity Design Challenge on mobility, they welcomed the opportunity to create a human-centered design project. One of their advisers encouraged them to reach out to the people they were designing for: older adults.

In other words, work with them and for them.

Steigmann and Jensen took that advice to heart. That’s how they learned that physical limitations weren’t the only factors that affected older people’s mobility. Emotions also came into play. Even when older people could get low to the ground to pick a book from a bottom shelf or bend over to put on their shoes, for instance, they often felt fearful and unsafe doing so, their confidence shaken.

Learning from Users

Such feedback helped the pair shape and refine their prototypes.

“We felt there was an underlying need to provide respect in the form of the product,” Steigmann said. “It became a guiding principle.”

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For their efforts, Steigmann and Jensen, juniors at The California College of the Arts in San Francisco, won the top prize at the recent global competition for designing products and services to improve the lives of older adults.

Now in its second year, the 2015 challenge, done in collaboration with Aging 2.0, drew 42 student teams from 11 countries. Judges whittled down the entrants to eight finalists, who presented their pitches in early April. The top three entries were awarded $10,000, $5,000 and $2,000, respectively. A special technology prize came with a $5,000 award.

‘Outstanding’ Entries

“We were really impressed by the student presentations this year,” said Ken Smith, director of mobility at the Stanford Center on Longevity and challenge director. “The caliber was outstanding and every one of the finalists would have made a worthy winner.”

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Jeffrey Makowka, director of thought leadership for AARP and a challenge judge, said the Stanford competition differs from pure technology challenges which might have several app-based entries.

“What makes this challenge unique is that they were usable goods that made sense, and addressed seemingly small issues with huge implications for everyday life,” Makowka said.

Winning Project

Steigmann and Jensen designed SPAN, a tripod-like device with handles at different heights to help a person get up from, or down to, the floor. They tested it on 26 adults ranging in age from 55 to the mid-90s who lived in their own homes or in senior facilities.

“It really clearly had the person using it in mind,” said Dr. Christine Ritchie, director of Tideswell at the University of California, San Francisco, and a challenge judge. “It allowed people to safely and comfortably get up and down, provided stability and reassurance with dignity. It was unobtrusive. It didn’t call attention to itself.”

(MORE: Young Prizewinners Help People With Dementia)

The SPAN team hopes to bring the product to market someday, Steigmann said. For now, they are working on developing an engineering model.

Help with Stairs

The second- and third-place winners also looked to older adults for inspiration, feedback and, if necessary, tweaking of their ideas.


The team from the University of California, Berkeley won second place for their HandleBar device. Their original challenge — part of a senior capstone class — was to find a way to help older people answer the doorbell faster, said team presenter Celia Cheung. But as they visited, observed and interviewed older adults, they realized that climbing stairs was the biggest obstacle. So they switched gears, eventually designing the HandleBar, a ratcheting railing device for people who want to use the stairs.

“Those house calls and visits gave us a sense of what they needed,” Cheung said.

The HandleBar team, which consists of four senior bioengineering students, is figuring out its next steps, Cheung said. They may enter the device in another engineering competition.

“The premise is non-mechanical, a relatively low-cost solution,” Makowka said. “It’s super-compelling.”

Fall Prevention

Personal knowledge also factored into the third-place winning product from a trio at Northwestern University in Chicago: Luna Lights, a system that uses a pressure sensor to tell when a person sits up in bed.Team members all knew what it was like to have elderly grandparents who had fallen, said one of the trio, Donovan Morrison. This group started working on the product during a 2012 summer design boot camp.

When a person sits up in bed, Luna Lights turns on wireless lights around the home. And when he or she returns to bed, the lights shut off. The system also can tell how often and how long someone is out of bed and sends alerts to caregivers as necessary.

The Northwestern team just finished its first pilot and has four more planned; they're in the midst of raising $250,000.

In addition to the three winners, a team from the National University of Singapore won the Stanford Longevity Technology Prize for Flipod, a rotation device for people at the lowest end of the physical activity spectrum — patients with muscular dystrophy. Flipod allows these patients to move in their bed without the help of caregivers.

“The issues around aging and supporting people’s independence, dignity and wellbeing is a universal issue,” Ritchie said. “It’s not an American issue. It’s a global issue.”

Next Year: ‘Happiness’

Next year’s Stanford design challenge is expanding significantly, with three tracks of competition: mind challenge, mobility challenge and financial security challenge. The theme is Using Happiness to Optimize Longevity.

“This year, we still got a lot of entries in the space of helping people overcome deficits,” Smith said. “Now we really want to get people thinking from the perspective: What makes a good day?”

Rhoda Fukushima is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer and former newspaper reporter who has written extensively on consumer health topics.

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