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Norwich University partners with Quality of Life Plus program for challenge project

Norwich University’s engineering students have taken on stacks of challenges to improve lives, working to boost solar panel efficiency and revive hydropowered electrical plants. With a new project, they’ll shift from a technical focus to take a more directly human tack, helping an injured veteran.

Four senior mechanical engineering students from Norwich’s David Crawford School of Engineering — Daniel McCurley, Tyrell Montani, Andrew Turner and Adrienne Vitelli — will partner with Quality of Life Plus (QL+), a McLean, Virginia-based nonprofit, to help Tammy Landeen, a U.S. Army veteran and QL+ challenger.

QL+ pairs students in top U.S. college engineering programs with veterans, active-duty military or first responders who have sustained life-altering injuries or illnesses and whose quality of life could dramatically improve with a creative engineering solution. 

When the 2019-20 academic year concludes, Norwich’s student team will present the completed device or modified hardware to Landeen for her to use. 

“This is human-centered; we can talk to the person we’re serving. That gives it a uniqueness that’s unlike any other project.”
— Dr. R. Danner Friend, Norwich engineering professor

Barb Springer, a retired U.S. Army colonel who is QL+ operations director, said the program teaches students about challenges people with disabilities must overcome. Students also learn a plethora of career-useful skills, she said, managing schedules and budgets; mastering tools; working collaboratively; serving clients and delivering on deadline 

“They learn how to communicate with an actual customer, listening to the specific desires and making adjustments as needed,” Springer said by email. “They learn that their own ideas may not end up being the best solution or the best way forward.”

Dr. R. Danner Friend, a Norwich engineering professor, said students often focus on technical requirements — looks, function, performance. This time, they’ll also concentrate on empathetic elements.

SEE: Tammy Landeen's QL+ Challenge video for Norwich's students

“If you’re designing something for the (international) space station, are (the students) really going to be able to talk to the astronauts? Probably not,” said Friend, who will advise the students and coordinate the project. “But this is human-centered; we can talk to the person we’re serving. That gives it a uniqueness that’s unlike any other project.” 

Friend agreed with Springer that the project will have students think beyond design. Time will be constrained to the academic year; although some elements may be unfinished and delivered as proof of concept, the prototype must function. The project’s budget will be limited to about $1,000, Friend said; purchasing decisions will have to fit that budget or the students will have to raise the extra money to cover costs, perhaps from sponsorships or donations.

Dr. R. Danner Friend, a Norwich University engineering professor, said the QL+ Challenge will have students think beyond design to manage time, budget and conceptual expectations. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

“They’ll be making decisions on what can and can’t be made,” Friend said. “It’s not a large budget to create a really sophisticated device. They’ll have to manage their own expectations on what can that can make and still deliver a solution.”

Landeen served in the Army as a tactical power generation specialist from 1996 to 2005. In 2002, she was injured while on active duty. After her service ended, she suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury while horseback riding. Because of this accident, Tammy is now in a wheelchair.

Landeen now must “hang” over her wheelchair to do any work close to the ground which causes back, neck, and shoulder pain. Her other option is to transfer out of her wheelchair to the ground, but this leaves her stationary; she must drag her body across the ground to move, which can cause skin breakdown and splinters and can leave her wet and muddy.  

Imagining a solution

Norwich’s students will work to design and build a functional adapted “creeper” so Landeen can safely work at ground level on projects — gardening, carpentry, automotive repair,  home improvements — inside and outside her home in Caribou, Maine. In a video, she said she’d like the device to have both indoor and outdoor wheels, lock when she wants to stay stationary and unlock when she wants to move, protect her ankles, and allow her body range of motion. 

In 2017, Landeen worked with QL+ Virginia Tech University engineering students to create a wheelchair tire change device 

Landeen said as an avid outdoorswoman she would often collect dirt, gravel and snow on her wheelchair tires. She needed help to clean or change the tires so she didn’t track the outdoors indoors.

“I make my husband take off his shoes before he comes in the house to prevent additional sweeping and mopping,” she said on a QL+ blog on her work with the Virginia Tech students posted Jan. 3, 2018. “If no one’s home to help me change my wheels, I have no choice but to track in mud.”

The Roanoke (Virginia) Times reported that students created a remote keychain-operated device that works like a hydraulic tire jack. It lifts Landeen’s wheelchair off the ground at the axle so she can easily pop off her wheels and replace them with new ones.

Landeen said it’s been exciting to have the students understand her request and use her ideas.

“QL+ is amazing,” she said on the blog. “The (students) enjoy interacting with me and learning about the challenges I face. I am proud to be part of this amazing program.” 

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