Aerospace engineering junior Alex Fung is paralyzed from the shoulders down. Having a disability since 2012, he is accustomed to maneuvering a wheelchair to get where he wants to go.
But the device that allows him to get around campus is also the biggest obstacle keeping him from travelling.
Fung is one of many past clients or “Challengers” for Cal Poly’s EMPOWER student association — previously known as Quality of Life+.
It started with an ad on Reddit posted by Fung, who was looking for a care assistant to help him in and out of his wheelchair in the mornings and evenings. The 2020-2021 president of the club formerly known as QL+ reached out and asked Fung if there were any project proposals Fung was interested in presenting to the club.
After analyzing the things that were inconvenient in his life, Fung landed on the idea of a portable lift — a device that would allow him to travel to places he has not been since his spinal injury.
And so, the Final Design Project (FDP) “Portable Lift for Alex” began.
“What I really appreciated from how he led the project was he really focused on my specific needs,” Aerospace engineering junior Alex Fung said.
The national QL+ organization’s mission focuses on developing assistive devices and prosthetic modifications for active duty military, veterans, first responders and law enforcement officers with physical disabilities. The organization was founded and created by Cal Poly industrial engineering alumnus Jon Monett in 2009.
Fung has never served in any of these capacities. In fact, most of EMPOWER’s Challengers do not fall under the categories defined by the national organization.
“As a student association, we’ve come to broaden our scope and take this idea of improving the quality of life of others and apply it to anyone regardless of their needs, their background and essentially just be there for our community,” biomedical engineering junior and EMPOWER president Pearse Lipscomb said.
It was this desire to be more inclusive that provoked the idea to change names, not only of the student association, but of the lab that allows the community projects to happen.
The QL+ lab in the Engineering IV building is now called the TECHE lab (“Transforming Engineers through Community Hands-on Engagements”), and the previously-named student association is now called EMPOWER (“Endeavors to Move People Onward With Engineered Results”).
From QL+ to the TECHE lab
“I think for a lot of us, the faculty that advise projects, it was like ‘well, we can see the synergistic value, it just so happens that this one person is not a veteran.’ But there are all these other people out there who would benefit from this,” Biomedical Engineering Department Chair and EMPOWER advisor Lily Laiho said.
For years, students pursuing a particular project could bounce from Laiho to one or two other faculty members if their proposal didn’t fit the national mission well enough.
Despite this, the faculty members thought a hub for community-based projects would simply be a “nice-to-have” rather than a real possibility, according to Laiho.
“Sometimes you need that kick in the pants to get you moving in the right direction,” Laiho said.
Thanks to a “kick in the pants” from Vice President of Research and Economic Development Renee Pera, Laiho, along with a team of eight other faculty members, gets to pursue that vision to create one place for community-based engineering projects.
In December 2019, Pera created the Strategic Research Initiatives (SRI) Program. The SRI program provides an opportunity for faculty members to present their research and research interests and to start collaborating with other members who might share those interests.
Through SRI and roundtables set up by College of Engineering Dean Amy Fleischer, Laiho teamed up with fellow faculty members Lynne Slivovsky, Jim Widmann, Brian Self, Lauren Cooper, Rebekah Oulton, Anurag Pande, Liz Schlemer and Jane Lehr to start concepting a proposal that encompassed their common goals.
The amenities of the lab will stay the same, with the primary physical change taking place at peeling off the QL+ letters and pasting ones to spell out TECHE. For the faculty, it’s more about creating a more inclusive mission.
“We’re just sort of leapfrogging on top of the great work that we’ve already done with QL+, but kind of taking it in a different direction and really expanding the mission and making it more inclusive and more encompassing,” Laiho said.
The move from QL+ to EMPOWER
When Laiho told the student association about the name change of the lab at the start of Fall 2020, reimagining the name and mission of the club became the top priority.
“We want it to be really clear that our goal is to empower people,” Lipscomb said. “And to return to them a sense of happiness, a sense of freedom, a sense of joy that they maybe have lost or that they were never given the opportunity to have.”
Mechanical engineering senior Kyle Ladtkow is the technical director of the club, was team lead for “Portable Lift for Alex” and was on the rebrand committee when the club officers started brainstorming the new club name. With a well-known name like QL+, a lot of thought was put into what name to move forward with.
After playing around with various acronyms like “AID” or “MEND,” the students landed on EMPOWER. The two prior felt like something needed fixing, rather than improving the quality of people’s lives, according to Ladtkow.
“It’s not just about solving a problem, because then there’s no heart. It’s about empowering people to live their lives.”
Now dropping the national mission from their brand, EMPOWER created a new mission statement: “to create better everyday life through engineering & innovation.”
“We wanted to come up with a mission statement that really embraces this community aspect of things,” Lipscomb said. “It’s not just about helping specific people.”
The student officers are currently working with a few alumni as well as College of Engineering Director of Marketing and Communications Charlotte Tallman to create a new logo for the club.
The biggest challenge of the rebranding might just be re-educating the student population to associate EMPOWER with QL+, according to Ladtkow.
Although the student association name change appears to disaffiliate the chapter from the national organization, not much has changed within their relationship.
The student association has for the most part functioned as an autonomous entity for as long as its existed, according to Laiho. Once the organization transitioned from an ASI club to an Instructionally Related Activity (IRA), the funding for projects came through the university. Any funding needed outside of IRA funds was found in donors and sponsors by members of the student association. All of the meetings, functions and projects are primarily run by the students, with Laiho available for advice and guidance.
With a new name and mission statement, EMPOWER can move forward with improving the lives of all community members with disabilities, military veterans and beyond, they said. No matter the occupation of their Challengers, EMPOWER members provide the best designs they can while making sure their clients’ needs are met.
“Non-professional designs or builds tend to have a degree of uncertainty to them, but I don’t have that with EMPOWER,” Fung said. “Kyle was with me and walking me through every step of the design process.”
With current COVID-19 restrictions keeping students out of the TECHE lab, the manufacturing of Fung’s portable lift is on hold, but the team finished the design. Fung said the student association reached out to him and let him know that if students can’t manufacture the lift, they will send it off to a company that can.
Fung said he doesn’t mind either way.
“But a second idea is modifying my old wheelchair to have tank treads,” Fung said. “To offroad.”
Fung said once the COVID-19 pandemic calms down, he thinks he’s going to pitch the idea to the team.