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. Three years after the Connecticut native first arrived at Elon University, she 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.

The Honors Fellow and Lumen Scholar studied industrial design as an independent major, which involved core engineering and art courses along with several other areas that contribute to the field. She is the first student from Elon’s engineering program to be awarded the Lumen Prize. Her goal is to design user-centered products that can make a difference in the lives of those using them. 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. Growing up watching her aunt struggle with multiple sclerosis and the resulting loss of mobility, Lester knew mobility technology had room for improvement, and was determined to help.

The prototype she created is built around smart technology that relies on sensors designed to make the product work more efficiently for its users. 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.

I’ve always liked building things, 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.

Associate Professor of Engineering Scott Wolter was Lester’s research mentor, and she also worked with Professor Glenn Walters in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to complete the prototype.

“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.”

Lester was determined from the start to take advantage of everything 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 was highly involved with Hillel, the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega and worked as a tour guide.

Eventually, she hopes to patent her prototype and sell the design to a walker company. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Northwestern University.