There’s a very interesting collaboration going on in Manhattan, Kansas. It’s bringing together the best of several worlds for the benefit of kids who are autistic or developmentally challenged in various ways. Perhaps even more inspiring is knowing it’s all about kids helping kids.

The Collaboration
The collaboration is taking place on so many levels it seems possibilities are endless. A group of engineering students and their professors at Kansas State University (KSU) are working with Heartspring, Inc., to design and build unique tools and devices that will enhance the quality of life for the children enrolled in Heartspring programs.

Heartspring was founded in 1934 as “a therapeutic residential and day school program for children with severe developmental disabilities from across the United States” although today it includes global outreach. The children enrolled are between 5 and 21 years old, most were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) but some have cerebral palsy, visual impairments, and other developmental disabilities. Some have multiple disorders. Most of the children are nonverbal.

Students and Professors
Engineering students taking senior design courses are working under the leadership of Steven Warren and Punit Prakash, professors in KSU’s electrical and computer engineering department, to design unique devices that will help the children at Heartspring cope better with their daily lives. The KSU students work with individual Heartspring students to overcome unique challenges. Once a design is perfected, the Heartspring child gets a copy of it to keep for his or her personal use. “This is research where you can add immediate benefit to these children’s lives,” said Warren.

The Best Worlds
Gary Singleton, Heartspring’s president, and CEO, said, “All too often clinicians and teachers don’t know what is possible and engineers don’t know what is needed.” That’s not happening in Kansas. The engineering students often visit the school to see first-hand the children they’re working for and the environment in which they live.

Then, in an ever-expanding sense of collaboration, the KSU students turn to students in other engineering departments for their unique expertise. Some projects thus far have included design collaboration with students of the university’s agricultural, biological, computer, electrical, industrial, mechanical, and nuclear engineering departments. They’ve reached out to the university’s department of apparel, textiles, and interior design for help with wearable sensors embedded in clothing and bedding.

Warren and Prakash began the specialty design courses in 2011. Thirty students and professors were active on the project when the Fall 2013 semester started. The project is being funded by a 5-year grant of $125,000 from the General and Age-Related Disabilities Engineering program of the National Science Foundation.


  1. Tidball, Jennifer. “University engineers design systems to help children with special needs.” Kansas State University News and Communications Services. Kansas State University. Jun 25, 2014. Web. Jun 26, 2014.
  2. Heartspring