Engineering projects focus on better senior living

Group shot of engineering and senior living students as well as community staff at Fairwinds Senior Living.

A cross-campus collaboration between Voiland College engineering students and the Carson College senior living management program is tackling engineering problems seen in senior living communities. One team’s solution draws inspiration from an arcade favorite: the gumball machine. 

A trip to two Spokane retirement communities in early fall inspired three student group design projects. Working in conjunction with WSU’s Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living, each team was tasked with designing a prototype related to the senior living industry in an upper-division engineering design course. 

The course, taught by Associate Professor Roland Chen, allows students to explore systems design, product development and engineering economics. Two of the groups elected to design pill-dispensing systems, and the third group, a fall detection device.

Seniors often struggle with their medications because their hands have poor dexterity. One group’s design mirrors the mechanisms of a gumball machine, dispensing water and pills within a compact box. The proposed system would help senior residents take their proper dosages and maintain their independence without requiring additional help from living community staff.

The Kleenex box-sized prototype holds two pill storage units. The units are fastened above a rotating disk, which has a pill-shaped hole that collects one pill from the unit and transports it to a short slide, where it travels into an awaiting cup.

Ian Wells, senior mechanical engineering student and member of the design team, said the project’s aim is to reduce time spent by living community staff on medication distribution. Instead, more attention can be devoted to additional services that benefit community members, he explained. 

“The most beneficial aspect of this has been the realization that what we are doing could have a real and positive impact on people,” Wells said.

The comprehensive project required students to complete initial research, design pitches and conceptualization before prototype development. In working with the client, teams put classroom concepts to practice, gaining hands-on, real-world experience with team driven engineering challenges. 

“This project has been a great introduction to how the engineering world works,” said Andrew Zapata, mechanical engineering senior. “Learning what these concepts can actually do to benefit people’s lives has been amazing.”

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