Redesigning the wheelchair and learning to be an engineer

  1. In the beginning, there was a new member of staff in Engineering Faculty (Elpida Makrygianni), a new lecturer (me), an orthopaedic surgeon (Pete Smitham), a Professor (Steve Hailes) and an idea. The idea was simple. We would use the standard hospital, folding frame wheelchair as a tool to help young people develop engineering habits of mind. The James Dyson Foundation agreed it was a good idea and offered to sponsor it. And so in the summer of 2014 the first UCL–JDF wheelchair design summer school took place.

The RAE (Royal Academy of Engineering) had just published a new report detailing what engineers do and in particular the ways in which they do things.

“Engineers make ‘things’ that work or make ‘things’ work better” – Thinking like an Engineer

I think it is worth noting that while engineers do indeed make things, they do so to solve problems people and society face.

When people apply for the summer school, they think of engineering greatness in terms of ‘things’, and normally these are really big things such as bridges or  trains. Some applicants do pick designs of smaller proportion – e.g.  the ‘Drummer Boy’ sheep sheers designed in 1730 – however, most focus on large-scale infrastructure and few mention people.

If we as engineers innovate to solve problems for people and society, then a core element of design is knowing  how people will use the device or service in their everyday lives. Take a wheelchair. By itself the wheelchair is simply a seat with wheels. Fitted well, and with the right training in a city which is accessible and it opens numerous doors for adventure.

Learning to think like an engineer

The 6 engineering habits of mind are: systems thinking, problem-finding, visualising, improving, creative problem-solving and adapting. We embed these into a week of wheelchair hacking. The focus is on learning to design innovative solutions by understanding the context, the problem and working in a team.


The students learn about the wheelchair system – the interaction between the wheelchair user, the wheelchair and the environment – by learning to use a wheelchair. The training is delivered by Pete Donnelly, formerly of Backup Trust. This proves to be a fun first morning. The students start off anxious to sit in the wheelchair, and move slowly and awkwardly at first. But after a couple of hours they are happily whizzing down slopes and over bumps.

Young man in the wheelchair is looking a little scared as he tilts back in the wheelchair. His team mate is behind him to help 'spot' him. She looks equally anxious.
Students practicing a wheelie in the UCL quadrangle

The first day is complemented by three talks. James Dyson Foundation and a Dyson Engineer introduce the design process used at Dyson. The need to understand the problem, state this clearly, generate ideas are all stressed. The talk moves onto the idea of prototyping. How many prototypes did it take for James Dyson to bring his first vacuum cleaner to market? 5127 and 15 years. How did he start? By identifying the problem. He moved from sketches to cardboard prototypes to understand the problem. We want the students to understand that failure is part of being an engineer. Once you understand the reason your design is not quit working yet you are one step closer to making it work.

The Dyson talk is followed by a talk on the wheelchair itself as a system. The component parts that make up the chair. How this enables a firm base upon which to have good posture, but also to push the wheels. How the wheels and their position affect both the stability and the ease of pushing.

Last and by no means lest the user perspective is introduced. The wheelchair is far more than a mechanical device. It is a part of a wheelchair user; people wear their wheels. It enables them to travel, to go to work, to be in the room they are in today. Students learn of the journey of being given a wheelchair and learning to use it.

By the end of day 1 the ideas are beginning to fester, and groups are eager to start putting pen to paper.

Sketches show rear wheels, and retractable stabilisers.
Sketches showing brainstorm of ideas to overcome steps


First up is a dose of health and safety. Ian Seaton delivers a talk on how to use the tools, saws, glue guns, hammers, etc safely. Then it is on to coding. How will you know your design improvements have been successful?

Rae Habrid and Steve Hailes deliver a crash-course in coding. In previous years we have used Engduinos to but this year we moved to the microbits. Students learn to code the microbit so that they can measure how far a wheelchair went, how fast it went, number of pushes etc.

Then the design process really begins. This year the groups were asked to design for a persona. A persona is a rich description of typical users of a product. Designers focus on the goals of this typical user group as well as their skills, their attitudes and the environment they will wish to perform tasks. Groups designed for teenagers who were long-term wheelchair users to increase independence;  inexperienced users and growing children.

Steve Hailes helps two female students with writing the code. The table is full of tools and the two students are looking on as Steve stands over the laptop
Getting some addition help from Steve with the code
A screen shot of some data, which is displayed as three graphs. The first is acceleration, the second the angle of the wheel and the third unwraps the angle to show a continuous line
A screen shot of the data: accelerations, angles of the wheel and an unwrapped angle


Students get hacking! They have generally gathered base line test data from the standard wheelchair at this stage. They know how far they can go on a single push, have measured vibrations of different surfaces and know how many pushes it takes to tackle different element of the UCL quadrangle.

The designs start with sketches, move to models and finally to physically hacking the wheelchair.  As the students progress their designs, iterating though possible solutions, they begin to move to making models and hacking the wheelchair.

A cluttered bot of desik showing sketches and a small cardboard model of a wheelchair
Cardboard model of a wheelchair

They are joined by wheelchair user, who drop by to help critique the designs. This constant interaction is a key feature of the summer school. As is the hands on building of design prototypes.

Students talk with Pete Donnelly about their wheelchair design idea of a third front wheel
Students talk with Pete Donnelly about their wheelchair design idea of a third front wheel
Ask me anything

This year Rosemary Frazer (GDI Hub) gave a brilliant hour of ‘ask me anything’. Students could ask anything of Rosemary, who uses a wheelchair and has worked in disability rights for many years. The students did not hold back and many a funny story was told by Rosemary. However, underneath the humour was a serious point, frequently people do not look past the wheelchair. Growing up there was little expected of Rosemary – they ‘society’ certainly didn’t expect her to become an athlete, to graduate from University or to get married. She was after all using a wheelchair.

‘We learn from asking questions and asking isn’t always easy. However it’s important we know more about the lives of disabled people to address access and other needs which help disabled people everywhere fulfil their potential.’ – Rosemary Frazer, GDI Hub


We have several guest speakers come in and talk about elements of the wider world of engineering. People such as Mark Miodownik pop in to talk about the role of materials. Or Tom Carlson joins to explain the concept of shared control of electric wheelchairs. This year throughout the week we had an artist in residence,  Jason Wilshire-Mills. Jason spent his time talking with students, explaining how his wheelchair worked, and producing a lot of sketches of his new artwork. Jason gave a sneak-peak of what he is designing on twitter recently, here.

The top of the grid shows Jason talking with to female team members. The bottom left shows the microbit. The bottom right Jason is at a team table talking to them as they develop ideas.
A photo-grid showing the microbit (bottom left) and Jason talking with the students as they work through their design and testing


It’s time for some final touch-ups to the design and presentation. A quick tidy of the space and a final guest speaker. This year Dafne Morgado-Ramirez talked about ‘Power-Up!‘. A project to re-design how we give additional power to wheelchair users to help prevent long-term injuries developing.

Finally it is time for the presentations.

Each year we are amazed by the amount of design thinking which has gone on over the week, and this year was no exception. It was by far the hardest to judge, and not just for me who had been in and out all week, but for those who had been there watching the teams and designs develop. The team work was outstanding, as was the knowledge of the problems faced by people and the challenges of altering component designs of the wheelchair.

The winning design had a beautifully simple ratchet design to prevent the wheelchair from rolling back down a slope and were well-deserved winners.

Winning team holding their prizes - Dyson fans. giulia is sitting in the winning design and UCL's portico is in the background.
The winning team with the fabulous Giulia Barbareschi, who ran the summer school this year.

So what is engineering?

When the dust settles on the summer school I am always left with a feeling that it has been one of the most inspiring weeks of my life. The students are amazing, and the designs they deliver are brilliant. It is always lovely to be able to show the next generation of engineers what we are working on now. Share with them what we think the challenges are, the things we are yet to crack. In the hope that they will be inspired to do engineering. In the hope they will be better than us. And selfishly, I have spent the week with some of the people I most respect, and had time to chat with them and think about new ideas and projects. Hear what they are working on and what they want to do next.

However, the most memorable thing is not the designs, it is the feedback forms. Gone are the references to buildings and trains. Instead people describe the teamwork, the problem-solving, the design process. They express clearly how critical thinking, working with tools, learning to code, and iterating through designs have been challenging but ultimately very rewarding. Perhaps most humbling is that many had not realised they were already able to be an engineer.

The 16 students of the 2017 UCL JDF Summer School alongside judges. The winning team are sitting in the wheelchairs in the front row, with Jason in the middle. Everyone else is standing behind.
The UCL–JDF class of 2017 with judges and artist in residence Jason

Further links

UCL Engineering have a flikr feed and albums for each year: 2014, 2015, 2016. This year’s album will be added when available.


One thought on “Redesigning the wheelchair and learning to be an engineer

  1. So glad to read this Cathy and Steve. Engineering works the better way for better living. Looking forward to more. Would like to have more info on simple ratchet design to prevent the wheelchair from rolling back down a slope. This would really be helpful for friends among wheelchair users in conditions like India especially for children, as you know the ramps are yet to improve.

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