By Andrew Nemethy
In the fertile mind of engineering professor Michael Prairie, ancient wooden flutes, walking aids, insulin pumps, and prosthetic limbs flow together in an innovative thread of teaching. All of these diverse objects have been turned into student projects under Prairie’s guidance, with a larger goal in mind beyond the academic world: creating devices that can enhance peoples’ lives.
Prairie is a 1983 Norwich graduate in electrical and computer engineering who came back to Norwich after a career in the Air Force and work for defense firms. It was a natural homecoming. “My heart and soul has been here since 1979,” he proudly says of the year he stepped onto the Northfield campus. Today, that connection is reflected in his passion for teaching the next generation of Norwich engineers – and doing it in a way that affirms the university’s strong service component.
Prairie and fellow professors such as Brian Bradke, Jeff Mountain, and David Feinauer are leading students to do projects in the expansive field known as assistive technology or AT. In layman’s terms, Prairie frames AT this way: While teaching the processes of engineering, why not have students produce “some kind of a widget that’s going to solve a problem.”
After all, he adds, with a smile, “there’s lots of problems we can solve.”
Not surprisingly for a former battalion XO in the Corps and retired Air Force major, his focus is on projects that can help military veterans. “It just feels right to do it,” he says, noting that many students at Norwich “are going off to become future VA patients, one way or the other.” For his students, he adds, knowing a veteran can benefit from their work provides strong academic incentive.
“I’m excited about it,” Prairie says during a conversation in his small office in Norwich’s Juckett Hall following a noon meeting between faculty and a couple dozen students selected to do six- and ten-week summer fellowships.
One of them is engineering major Patrick Millington, who will be a junior in the fall and holds a prestigious Weintz Research Scholar designation. Working with Prof. Feinauer, he is researching an AT device that can collect data on tremors (pictured above). A member of the Corps of Cadets who will commission in the US Navy, Millington explains that tremors are an affliction often connected to war stress that is a priority focus of the Veteran’s Administration.
“I can think of no better use of my time,” he says of his project.
Prairie’s office is a cluttered testament to his eclectic interests and his academic profession. Plastic boxes of electronic parts stack up on shelves, tables are strewn with wires, papers and books, and behind his desk, nestled in a large cloth bundle he unwraps to show his visitor, are more than a dozen beautiful wooden flutes he has crafted, testament to both his love of music and scientific curiosity. His first foray into AT was music-related as well—a conversion of a robotic guitar project to a fretting device for guitar players who had lost the use of their fretting hand.
Prairie, who has short-cropped hair and glasses, says AT is rich with engineering possibilities.
“What’s been happening in the last 10 years is there’s really been a revolution in microtechnology,” he explains, citing sensors and microprocessors in smart phones and other devices. With sophisticated technology “cheap and easy to get,” the door has opened wide to use AT for senior capstone projects or summer research.
AT refers to devices or products that can aid a person with a disability perform tasks that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. Obvious examples are a wheelchair or crutch, but assistive technologies run the gamut from cleverly designed, simple low-tech – think a strap that helps someone hold a pen – to immensely complex devices such as robotic arms.
Prairie’s interest in AT was musically piqued: the University of Alberta created a way for a musician to play his saxophone again after losing an arm. While a prosthetic arm seemed like the obvious solution, Prairie says their “brilliant engineering observation” was that instead all he needed was a simple mechanical device using touch-sensitive switches to open the instrument valves. A much simpler solution to the problem at hand.
The AT projects Norwich students take on are geared at solving a specific need. “Our research usually involves talking to stakeholders, people who are going to use it or maintain it or care about it being built,” Prairie explains. He works with VA officials to identify their priorities and good student projects.
It’s a win-win focus, he says, noting that helping war veterans “tugs on the heart strings” for students at Norwich.
“There’s a significant number of students that are here because they want to make the world a better place, and this is a tangible way to work on a project that is making the world a better place for somebody,” he says.