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Updated: March 09, 2016

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Foothill Students Engineer Adaptive Devices for Children with Disabilities

This year, Foothill College launched a five-course series for students who want to work in the biomedical industry, a booming segment of the Silicon Valley tech sector. The classes are part of the Foothill College Science Learning Institute (SLI), an initiative that uses an innovative education model for the successful teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at all levels.

Each course emphasizes a hands-on approach that encourages students to explore the process of science, not just the solution.

Oxana Pantchenko, Ph.D., who champions the goals of Foothill’s SLI, is the force behind the biomedical device-engineering curriculum. She holds a doctorate degree in electrical engineering, and worked as a biomedical engineer and Commissioner’s Fellow at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Silver Spring, Md., before joining Foothill’s faculty.

Dr. Pantchenko taught ENGR 83A: Introduction to Biomedical Engineering this fall to a class of about 25 Foothill students. The goal of the course was to design an adaptive handle that would help people with disabilities, especially children, grasp things they otherwise could not easily hold. The students collaborated with each other, as well as with campus and community experts from multiple disciplines.

For example, the students consulted with an occupational therapist from California Children’s Services who showed them what tools children and adults with disabilities currently use, the strengths and weaknesses of those devices, and provided feedback for students to implement in their final designs.

“In addition to providing high-quality instruction and training that can lead to rewarding careers for Foothill students, we’re engineering and producing adaptive handles for local children in need, improving the quality of their lives,” says Dr. Pantchenko.

Students enrolled in the five-unit course also had an opportunity to work with other members of the Foothill academic community. “When the students were designing adaptive handles that would hold toothbrushes, we had a faculty member from Foothill’s Dental Hygiene Program review the students’ prototype designs and provide feedback,” Dr. Pantchenko says. “This was helpful in the design process for the students then implemented the feedback recommendations in their design processes to create a more thoughtful, successful product.” This interdepartmental collaboration exemplifies Foothill’s goal of being a living laboratory where different disciplines leverage each other to become more dynamic.

“The 3-D printers that our students use also play a substantial role, not just for this class but for so many Foothill classes,” she says. “Students use the printers in engineering courses and for independent study projects, as well as in the biomedical devices class.”

Students then worked in teams to produce designs for the adaptive handles. Two designs were then selected to go into production, resulting in 100 of the newly designed toothbrush handles being delivered to California Children’s Services in San Jose.

“Working through this process gives our students the opportunity to engage with engineering and design technology, and creates an effective, hands-on learning experience,” Dr. Pantchenko says. “It also gives them a chance to collaborate with our greater community, and positively impact the lives of others. We’re training students with state-of-the-art technology so that they’ll be able to confidently use this equipment in the region’s burgeoning biomedical devices industry. Not only are community colleges like Foothill part of our larger community, we’re the engine that delivers qualified employees to Silicon Valley’s workforce.”

In addition to the coursework, design, and consultation with experts, the students also heard from members of the biomedical device industry.

“The class featured seven industry guest speakers, as well as a field trip to a local pathology lab,” she says. “These unique opportunities give students the chance to see what the industry is like, hear from industry professionals and develop a better understanding of the job duties and education required to succeed in this career field. There are hundreds of local biomedical device companies, and Foothill’s location in the high-tech heart of Silicon Valley gives us outstanding access to these companies, that in turn, can excite students to pursue biomedical device engineering as a rewarding career.”

Students who take Foothill’s ENGR 83A class come from a variety of backgrounds, according to Dr. Pantchenko. She estimates that half are students who are pursuing transfer to four-year universities to complete bachelor’s degrees, and half are working professionals who are returning to school to add skills and training that will help them be more competitive in the workforce.

Cousins Tu Le and Michelle Le completed the course to get a competitive edge, make their resumes stand out, and find rewarding careers.

“I saw this course and knew that the hands-on experience, as well as the opportunities to interact with biomedical leaders in the area would give me a greater advantage when looking for the right job,” says Michelle, who holds an English degree from San Jose State University and wants to be a technical writer.

Tu, who trained at De Anza College and works as a phlebotomist for Kaiser Permanente, also saw the class as a way to build her experience. “I’m interested in the variety of medical research happening in Silicon Valley, especially the biomedical device industry and how it develops great devices and other products,” she says. “I knew that this course would help me gain applicable experience and provide insight into the different career pathways I can pursue.”

During Summer Session 2016, Foothill students will have an opportunity to learn more about various careers in the technology sector by participating in hands-on internships with SLI partners, including UC San Francisco, San Jose State, and the Fogarty Institute for Innovation at El Camino Hospital.

To register for ENGR 83B and ENGR 83C courses, visit This article originally appeared on the Foothill-De Anza Foundation webpage.

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