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University of Melbourne students engineer Rainbow Box for children with autism

L-R: Jing Mu, Master of Engineering (Mechatronics), William Campbell, Master of Engineering (Mechatronics), Emerson Keenan, PhD candidate, and Samantha Davies, Bachelor of Science (Electrical Systems major)

Engineering and IT students from the University of Melbourne have joined forces to develop the “Rainbow Box”, a low-cost multi-sensory toy for children with autism.

Children with autism often have challenges in communicating and interacting with others, although early intervention is associated with positive results in helping children improve their developmental trajectory.

Multi-sensory toys like the Rainbow Box are used to help aid exercises in learning and relaxation for children with autism. However, as high-quality devices can retail in the thousands of dollars it can sometimes be difficult for families to access their benefits.

Determined to help children with autism, University of Melbourne PhD candidate Emerson Keenan rallied a diverse team of undergraduate and Masters students through the IEEE UniMelb Student Branch to design a high-quality multi-sensory toy that can be produced at a low cost.

“I had been thinking about ways to teach engineering students practical design skills and thought this presented a unique opportunity to tackle two issues at once,” said Emerson.

With funding from the University of Melbourne’s Student Engagement Grants Program and support from autism peak body Amaze, Emerson organised a group of 10 students from engineering, computer science, biomedicine, science and architecture to create a unique product design. Utilising the University of Melbourne’s 3D printing innovation centre and support from industry mentors, students applied expertise from their individual area of study to help create the Rainbow Box.

“The team meets once a week in a lab on campus to refine and build the product. Support is provided throughout the process to ensure they have the necessary equipment and technical expertise, but all design effort is their own,” said Emerson.

The resulting device is a high quality multi-sensory toy that offers auditory, tactile and visual stimulus. It can be easily customised for a range of tasks including memory games or musical activity and is designed to accommodate the fine motor skills of children with autism.

Inspired by the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program, this project has provided a valuable opportunity for students to tackle a community issue, collaborate with other disciplines and integrate their learning from related subjects.

“The main reason that led me into engineering is that I believe that engineers can make people’s lives better. This project gave me the chance to help the people in need with my knowledge and work with people from other disciplines,” said team member and Master of Engineering (Mechatronics) student Jing Mu.

“This project was related to a subject I had taken as part of my Master of Information Systems course, and it was interesting to build a product that can interact with children who have special needs,” said Master of Information Systems student Herman Wahidin.

The team has finished an initial prototype of the device and are currently in the process of refining their design for durability and safety. Once complete, the team aims to distribute a small production run of devices through their partner organisation Amaze by April this year.

Emerson is proud of the progress his team has made, and is looking forward to guiding them through the final stages of the device’s development.

“By providing students with the resources and support to apply their knowledge in a practical way, they can make an immediate difference in the community. I hope this project encourages more students to think about a career in assistive technology so that a wider range of devices can be created,” said Emerson.

In between leading this project, Emerson is completing his PhD in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, focusing on biomedical signal processing and non-invasive fetal monitoring.

“After my PhD, I’d like to continue in engineering education and research. I think we can truly make the world a better place through technology and I’d like to help as many people as possible realise their talents along the way.”

For more information, contact Emerson Keenan at e.keenan@ieee.org or visit the project’s website.

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