Published: Aug. 4, 2002

Note to Editors: Media are welcome to attend the final project presentations by students enrolled in the SMART program. The presentations begin at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7, in CU-Boulder's Eaton Humanities Building, room 150.

Three undergraduate students enrolled in the Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training, or SMART, program at the University of Colorado at Boulder have created a talking vest to help an 11-year-old Colorado boy who has Down Syndrome.

The vest, which can record and play back four individualized messages, is aimed at helping the youth communicate with others and improve his language skills through repetition. By pushing one of four buttons, which are marked with embroidered football patches on the front of the denim vest, prerecorded phrases such as, "Hello, what's your name?" and "Do you want to play catch?" can be played back through a small speaker sewn into one shoulder of the vest.

Originally requested by the youngster's teacher last fall, the vest was a joint project involving students at Hampshire College in Massachusetts and the College of Engineering and Applied Science at CU-Boulder. Hampshire students designed and fabricated the vest, while CU-Boulder students designed and built the electronic components. The students stayed in close communication throughout the fall semester to make sure the vest design accommodated the necessary electronic components and foam padding needed to protect the components during playtime.

The garment was completed and sent to Boulder in December, but the complexity of the electronics needed to meet the project specifications kept the project from being finished in one semester. SMART program students Jefferson Fernandes, Frederick Boateng, and Alejandro Cuevas were able to complete the project this summer under the direction of Associate Professor Melinda Piket-May and research associate Dana Ruehlman of the department of electrical and computer engineering.

"This was a challenging project, and these students did a great job of designing a low-profile, durable talking vest," said Piket-May. "Their biggest challenge was to make it durable and comfortable enough so the child can wear it playing football."

The student team developed custom circuitry that enables the vest to record and play back different messages, while also having a very flat profile so as not to add too much bulk to the garment. The team researched different computer chips and ultimately ordered one from England to meet the project specifications. The students also took apart several commercially available toys to find the kind of flat, soft buttons they needed to activate the device.

"The hands-on experience has been great," said Cuevas, a junior majoring in electrical and computer engineering at the University of California at Riverside. "At school, it's more theoretical. This project also opened my eyes to assistive technology and all the elements that are involved in an interdisciplinary project."

SMART is a 10-week summer research program established in 1989 for undergraduates in science and engineering. The program provides hands-on research experience and an introduction to graduate education for two-dozen students from throughout the United States each year.

Boateng, who plans to transfer to CU-Boulder from Houston Community College this fall, said he particularly enjoyed the opportunity to work with CU faculty involved in the program.

Lauren Way, program coordinator for the Lemelson Assistive Technology Development Center at Hampshire College, said she was thrilled that the vest is complete and able to be delivered to the intended client.

The vest will be given to the youth sometime after the students' final project presentation on Aug. 7. "We hope to reach the boy's family soon to set a date for him to try it out," said Piket-May.