Engineering Students Aid Workers with Disabilities

By Michael Parker

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 18, 2024) — Each year, UAlbany seniors studying electrical and computer engineering are tasked with creating and designing a capstone project that serves as the culmination of their undergraduate academic journey. The projects also provide students the opportunity to work side-by-side with UAlbany researchers and outside agencies to develop innovative technologies that could be applied in real-world settings.

For seniors Shak Williams, Jordan Jung and Jacob Bruno, it was a chance to make a difference in the lives of New Yorkers living with disabilities.

Working in the class of Professor of Practice Jonathan Muckell at UAlbany’s College of Nanotechnology, Science, and Engineering, Williams, Jung and Bruno developed a mail-sorting device to aid workers at the Center for Disability Services (CDS) Mail Fulfillment Center in Colonie. The students’ work was sponsored by NYSID (New York State Industries for the Disabled), which covered the cost of the student project (up to $1,000) and helped connect the students to local nonprofit organizations that employ people with disabilities. The students also took part in NYSID’s CREATE (Cultivating Resources for Employment with Assistive Technology) competition, which provides a forum for college students across New York to display their specialized inventions.

In the case of Williams, Jung and Bruno, they designed a lightweight machine, capable of fitting on rolling tabletop, which detects whether paper passing through it is mail or a separator.

“Their device saves about seven seconds per batch of paper,” said Alex Demitraszek, the customer care manager at the facility. “When you are talking about thousands of batches of paper per day, those seconds can add up very quickly.”

Demitraszek has worked with Muckell on a number of student capstone projects. The device built in 2022, a bypass machine to reduce the weight load of shredded paper, was used all the time until the motor blew on the shredder itself. The bypass was no longer needed when CDS installed a new shredder. The device built in 2023, an automated paper ream opener, is still in use by the facility today. But Demitraszek sees the work of this year’s team as having the greatest potential yet.

Williams, who was born in St. Andrew, Jamaica, enjoyed engineering from an early age.

“I had a passion with tinkering with things to see how they work, pulling them apart to see if I could put them back together again,” said the Williams, who is an Electrical and Computer Engineering major.

Williams’ parents expected him to go to college, even though it wasn’t common in his family.

“When I came to UAlbany, I felt a family-like environment,” said Williams, a track and field athlete who recently became the University’s first-ever America East Indoor Track & Field Performer of the Year. “Not only was UAlbany willing to give me a full scholarship to compete at the Division I level, I would have the opportunity to pursue studies in electrical and computer engineering.”

Williams found the capstone project to be an insightful experience, including working directly with a stakeholder at each step of the process, from the initial contract through completing a finished product.

But perhaps the most rewarding part was seeing the device that he created with his teammates put to use by workers living with disabilities.

Jung, of Busan, South Korea, was part of an audio-visual team in high school, which sparked her interest in engineering.

“I always wanted to learn how to build or fix the equipment we used and the audio signals things are closely related to electrical engineering,” said Jung, whose parents were also keen on her going to college.

“Working with NYSID and seeing the impact our device has had on disabled workers has been great,” continued Jung. “Alex has been amazing in giving us feedback as we worked to perfect our device.”

Bruno, from the small town Clarksville, N.Y., was encouraged by his family and teachers to pursue a college degree.

“The biggest reason that I chose UAlbany was that the ECE program was a blend of electrical and computer engineering, which are two things that I was both interested in,” said Bruno, who cited the industry partnership aspect of the capstone as particularly valuable.

“The project was very helpful in understanding the subtleties and real world impact that come with being an engineer,” said Jung. “Working with NYSID has really opened my mind to the fact that we can really help anyone with disabilities and allow them to preform work that they couldn't normally do.”

“Capstone projects are extremely important in allowing CNSE students to apply what they have learned in the earlier years of their degree program to design an actual device, algorithm, or process,” said CNSE Dean Michele J. Grimm. “When those projects are linked to real world clients, the projects become more meaningful.  And when those clients include individuals with different life experiences and needs – including the employees with disabilities that CDS connects us to – it really demonstrates to students the importance of including those users in the identification of the goals and constraints for the project, as well as evaluating whether their design meets those targets.  This experience truly supports our goal of having students ready to hit the ground running after graduation – and exemplifies our mission of ‘Science in service to society.’”