As an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Mei Lin (Ete) Chan is no stranger to working on projects involving 3D printing and assistive technology, initiatives aimed at improving day-to-day functionality for people with disabilities. But the encouragement from a local councilman to help with a toy drive pushed her passion for community outreach in a direction that enabled Chan and her students to deliver some much-needed holiday spirit to kids in need.
Jonathan Kornreich, a member of the Brookhaven Town Council representing the district that includes Stony Brook University, is a passionate supporter of STEM education. Chan said Kornreich and the community he represents heard about the work done by her and her students and told her about the toy drive.
“I thought if we did this together, my students and I could focus on the engineering part,” Chan said.
Chan’s work in biomedical engineering frequently focuses on health-related issues. While working on a project to help elderly people suffering from arthritis, Chan realized she could expand her community outreach efforts and engage students via organizations like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) and Alpha Eta Mu Beta (AEMB), the national biomedical engineering honor society, all of which have Stony Brook chapters.
“We had conversations at the Long Island State Veterans Home and they told us the things that they needed for older patients,” said Chan. “For example, people who have arthritis can have a hard time doing even basic tasks like brushing their teeth or using a key to open a door — anything that would require them to bend their fingers. After talking to them we realized that this assistive technology would not only help elderly people who have arthritis, but it could also help children who have disabilities that affect their fine motor skills.”
Having two young children of her own, the tiny user buttons incorporated into many toys immediately came to mind.
“Seeing how they play with toys and learn so many things like action and reaction along the way is amazing,” she said. “And toys are not just for fun. They can help develop gross and fine motor skills, cognitive, psychosocial, emotional and linguistic skills. But toys that have little switches can be very difficult for kids who have a hard time with fine motor control skills.”
To address the challenge, Chan and her students in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences worked on developing something called an adaptive switch, which is essentially a large button that can be adapted to the toy to make it easier for children to navigate.
“Imagine a kid sitting in a wheelchair,” said Chan. “They’d be able to easily click on this bigger switch and control the toy by themselves. It would give them some independence. When we started thinking about it like that it became a turning point.”
With that mission, Chan was able to simultaneously offer students a chance to work on a real-world application and help out with the toy drive. Chan also cited the importance of the inspiration and resources she got from her collaborator Blanche Leeman, clinical assistant professor in the Occupational Therapy Program at the Stony Brook University School of Health Professions, as well as a Canadian organization called Makers Making Change and a Philadelphia organization called Technology for Our Whole Lives, both of which share a similar mission.
“They bring together engineers, educators and parents,” Chan said. “Someone like me would have an opportunity to help grant wishes by creating the assistive technology needed and shipping it to the person who requested it.”
Senior Nathaniel Jamison ‘23, a biomedical engineering major and the STEM coordinator chair of AEMB, is one of the students who spearheaded the initiative.
“We saw posts on the Makers Making Change website that were in line with what we were doing with the toys,” he said. “Now we’re making adapted toys for kids who might have issues such as cerebral palsy. There are a lot of ways we can make these simple tasks easier through these projects.”
Jamison said that there is a demand for adapted toys, but the ones currently available are costly, adding $20-30 to the price of the toy alone.
“We want to help make these toys more accessible for the people who need them,” said Jamison, adding that it’s fulfilling to be able to help families in need.
“It’s rewarding in a way that you don’t quite get from classes,” said Jamison. “The work we do on these projects is going to help people who will use it in real life. It’s gratifying to know that people out there are going to actually benefit from something you worked on.”
Chan said the success of this initiative is largely due to the students’ involvement. Senior Elpida Manolas ’23, a biomedical engineering major and president of the Biomedical Engineering Society’s Stony Brook Chapter, mobilized her e-board and members to contribute to both the toy adaption and delivery.
“BMES has been able to organize many of our members to go through training, adapt multiple toys, and help deliver them to Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, United Cerebral Palsy, Angela’s House and AHRC Suffolk,” said Manolas. “Biomedical Engineering is all about finding creative and innovative ways to help people, to increase their quality of life. It’s amazing to see this work really benefiting people, and we hope to keep being part of projects like this in the near future.”
Furthermore, to expand student involvement beyond those in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the initiative fostered a meaningful collaboration with the Stony Brook branch of the IEEE, allowing students to experience and learn from each other’s majors.
“When Professor Chan contacted us about collaborating with the Bioengineering, Education, Application and Research (BEAR) VIP (Vertically Integrated Project) Team on adapting toys for children, we were really excited to get involved and help out,” said Rachel Leong, an electrical engineering major and vice president of the IEEE. “We used the IEEE lab to provide a space and the soldering irons for students and had a lot of fun putting together the toys and adaptive switches. It’s not every day that an organization reaches out to us to collaborate on a product that directly impacts someone’s lives like this, and it is a rewarding and enriching experience to be working with people from other disciplines like biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering. It was a welcome change of pace and we would be happy to contribute more in the future.”
Moving forward, Chan hopes to continue with this initiative to set up adaptive toy libraries for the partner organizations and potentially also assistive technology for elderly residents in the Long Island community.
— Robert Emproto
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