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Young engineers design cell phones for elderly

Move over Apple, Verizon and AT&T – there’s a new mobile device designer in town.

A new, interactive online activity, found at allows middle- and high-school students to design a cell phone interface for the elderly. The simulated web experience takes kids through research, design and test phases, placing them in the role of the engineer.

This activity was developed through a unique partnership between EdHeads™ and the Ohio State College of Engineering, and was funded by a Motorola Innovation Generation grant.

The concept is simple: provide a fun, easy way to educate school-age children about engineering design and introduce them to potential careers as engineers.

“Our goal with this program is to put engineering in front of kids at a young age. With this particular activity, they must separate themselves from their own knowledge of technology, and design a tool for their grandparents,” said Gail Wheatley, executive director, EdHeads.

Research data are provided at the onset of the activity, such as usage statistics, battery life, dimensions and weight. Designers then have options such as color choice, button size, software complexity, dimensions, weight, grip, screen size and brightness. They are instructed to design a cell phone for an audience that is 65 years old and older, with a total production budget of $100 or less. Once the phone is ready, the young designers hear feedback from target audience members that have tested their particular phone.

Ohio State’s involvement in this project included helping EdHeads research, design and test the activity.

“Engineers help people, it’s what we do. We ask questions and try to solve problems the world faces. The cell phone design activity is the first interactive experience that puts kids in the engineer’s shoes,” said David Tomasko, professor and associate dean for Academic Affairs and Student Services.

“Kids have taught their parents and grandparents how to use cell phones, so they are aware of the challenges,” said Wheatley. “Kids are technology experts, and the elderly have a number of issues with the typical cell phones used by younger generations. It’s a perfect match.”

EdHeads is a non-profit educational web development company that began 2001 and has created several other educational games and activities such as Virtual Knee Surgery, Deep Brain Stimulation and Crash Scene Investigation. Each activity features graphics, sound and animation. The site attracted nearly 10 million unique visitors in 2008.