Cal Poly Students Take First Place at Inclusive Design Competition

Four men
Alex Zuniga (left) stands with students Nico Nuñez, Jacob Richards, and Joey Johnson and their IDEATE Competition winning project, the eZcart.

A team of three Cal Poly industrial and manufacturing engineering students took first place at this year’s IDEATE Engineering Competition with their senior project: the eZcart, a janitorial cart designed to help reduce fatigue and discomfort for those with mobility impairments.

Joey Johnson, Jacob Richards and Nico Nuñez, led by faculty advisor and industrial and manufacturing engineering lecturer Jill Speece, participated in the IDEATE Engineering Competition, a national competition held each year which features both university level and high school students developing projects for people with disabilities. Each team competing in the competition is partnered with a non-profit organization, where a subject matter expert, an employee with a disability or other impairment that they go through on a day-to-day basis, works in collaboration with the team’s students to help find solutions on how to improve their workflow and general well-being.

This year, the Cal Poly team developed their project with Alex Zuniga.

“It’s two birds with one stone; that’s the big concept behind the project,” said Nuñez, “Not only helping Alex, but also increasing his productivity.”

Zuniga, a janitor working for local non-profit VTC Enterprises, lives with cerebral palsy, making it difficult for him to fulfill some of the necessary tasks of his job, such as bending down, kneeling and getting back up again. The team developed their project side by side with him, utilizing his knowledge to draw out a few designs, and then build an initial prototype. During the process, they used Zuniga’s feedback to iterate the design into a finished product.

Alex Zuniga

“In our IME department, we propose senior projects every year, so I was looking for opportunities for our students to engage in designing for inclusivity,” Speece said. “This competition was a really good opportunity for the students to use their technical and social skills.”

“My little cousin has a disability that requires the use of a wheelchair, so growing up with him I’ve gotten used to being crafty and finding different ways to include him in things, and to have fun despite that. So, then I thought, ‘oh this is a great opportunity to use my engineering skills and help someone else,’” said Nuñez.

As a team of seniors getting ready to graduate, the ability to work on tangible projects in partnership with real companies and employees provided a unique opportunity for the students.

“As much as we’re jumping into industry and we’re going to be learning in industry, this project really reminded me how valuable it is to be able to be in a situation that is pretty rare. That’s because of Cal Poly, where we are learning the academics but are also doing a real, professional project at the same time. The chance to combine those things is very rare and this senior project is a perfect snapshot into the power of Learn by Doing,” said Johnson.

“The students did such a great job working with Alex that VTC Enterprises wants to keep doing senior projects with our students in the future. That in and of itself speaks volumes as to what the students accomplished,” said Speece.