Lumen Scholar uses smart tech to craft smart solutions that change lives
Beth Lester '17 is among the recipients of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship and celebrates their academic and creative accomplishments.
By Sarah Mulnick '17
Seeing her aunt struggle with the brakes on her walker has provided Beth Lester ’17 with a personal connection to using technology to improve someone’s life, and a motivation to break new ground in the world of industrial design. Now three years after the Connecticut native first arrived at Elon University, she has created the prototype of a walker infused with smart technology, similar to what iPhones and Roombas use to be more user-friendly and specific, that could help not just her aunt, but countless others.
For Lester, the goal is to design user-centered products that can make a difference in the lives of those using them. The walker prototype that she’s created as a Lumen Scholar is built around smart technology that relies on sensors designed to make the product work more efficiently for its users.
“I’ve always liked building things,” Lester said. “But I also like people and the psychology behind the things they use. You can’t design something and expect that people are going to want to use it unless you think about the psychology behind it, and you talk to them about what they want from the object. You aren’t going to make the same thing for an 80-year-old as you would for a teenager.”
With that in mind, she’s designed a “smart walker” for older adults using the user-centered design process. Lester spoke to the adults who would be using it, many of whom reside at Twin Lakes Community in Burlington, as well as their relatives to understand how to make it the most useful and functional. “I knew I wanted to create something for a specific population,” the honors fellow said. Growing up watching her aunt struggle with multiple sclerosis and the resulting loss of mobility, Lester knew that mobility technology had room for improvement, and was determined to help.
Lester is pursuing this solution as a recipient of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrates their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects. Efforts include coursework, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances. The name for the Lumen prize comes from Elon’s historic motto “Numen Lumen,” Latin words for “spiritual light” and “intellectual light.”
Lester is an independent major studying industrial design, which involves core engineering and art courses along with several other areas that contribute to the field. For her, it means approaching the design of an object with the intent of putting the user first, and keeping in mind the need of the individuals it’s designed for.
The smart components include sensors that can measure incline, so that when the walker goes down a hill, friction can be added to the wheels to slow it down. This alleviates concerns about balance or stability, and makes it easier for users who have difficulty squeezing a brake. The walker includes sensors that can tell how far away the user is, with indicators that light up and beep until the user is close enough to use the walker properly.
Lester is the first student from Elon’s engineering program to be awarded the prize. As an independent major, she said that she feels she often gets the best of all available worlds from academic mentors to the classes she takes, and has more control over her education.
Scott Wolter, Lester’s research mentor and associate professor of engineering at Elon, said that working with Lester has been refreshing.
“She’s intelligent and an independent worker,” Wolter said. “I’ve been at Elon four years, and most of my interactions previous to Elon were with graduate students. At her age, her level of intelligence and independent work habits, project management, has been very impressive, from day one as a freshman.”
Though the industrial design field is relatively small, Wolter added, Lester’s work is unique, not only in the ergonomics of the walker but also in the integration of smart technology.
Lester has also worked with Professor Glenn Walters with the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill to complete the prototype.
Lester was determined from the start to take advantage of everything that Elon had to offer, including the research opportunities and the chance to study abroad. She spent fall semester of her junior year in Copenhagen, Denmark, and while at Elon, she has been highly involved with Hillel, the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, and has worked as a tour guide.
Eventually, she hopes to patent the prototype and sell the design to a walker company. Until then, she’s applying to graduate schools for industrial design, and isn’t limiting herself geographically. The schools she’s looked at, she said, encompass a service element in the design process as well, a trait she’s learned to value while at Elon.
“What I really like is that they focus on design more broadly than just products,” she said. “They do service design, designing how services operate. I’ve found that I’m most interested in designing products that provide services, things for people who live in disaster zones or for children.”
Overall, Lester said, the Lumen prize has taught her the value of staying adaptable. “Going into things with an open mind and not knowing where you’re going is better,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about walkers going into this, and that made me a more flexible researcher.”