Connecting students and seniors to solve real-world challenges using 3D printing

Niti Parikh, the creative lead at Cornell Tech's MakerLAB, along with Jane Swanson and My Linh Nguyen-Novotny, write about a collaborative six-week workshop where participants (senior citizens from Roosevelt Island and graduate students from Cornell Tech and Weill Cornell CTSC) worked on prototypes for a life hack product challenge.

Public engagement has been a core focus of the MakerLAB at Cornell Tech since its inception in the Fall of 2016. In a pilot workshop offered in Spring 2018, six senior community members were paired up with six Cornell Tech graduate students and six Weill Cornell Medicine Clinical Translational Science Center (WCM CTSC) students to work together to design and create real-world products that could address challenges posed by the senior community.


Cornell Tech is located on Roosevelt Island, in the East River between Manhattan and Queens in New York City. It is a residential community of approximately 14,000 people with a significant older adult population, including two active senior organizations: The Carter Burden Roosevelt Island Senior Center, and the Roosevelt Island Senior Association (RISA). To design and implement this workshop, the MakerLAB at Cornell Tech coordinated with these two organizations to solicit design challenges as understood by this community, and that could be addressed using digital fabrication techniques – in particular, 3D printing. The WCM CTSC has sought to encourage adoption of 3D printing in biomedical and clinical research by acquiring 3D printers and establishing a 3D printing lab in 2014. This workshop grew out of an awareness of the opportunities for innovation and creativity to address the needs of the aging population by leveraging 3D printing’s application in health and medicine.

teams at work

Why 3D printing?

Unlike conventional prototypes which may take a skilled artisan weeks or months to produce, rapid prototyping tools like Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) printers can make parts in a few days or less with little human intervention. Therefore, the designer may prototype the part as often as necessary to check for appearance and function. Changes may then be easily incorporated into the model and another prototype generated [1].





Workshop format and learning environment design

Future innovation is likely to come from both familiar forms of professional design and engineering, as well as from non-professional networks of people "hacking together". This includes rapidly prototyping their own designs, developing and building bespoke inventions, and making adaptations to existing technologies [2].

The workshop schedule:

Week 1: Sourcing challenges and meeting teams

Week 2: Empathize and define your challenge

Week 3: Ideate to prototype

Week 4: Prototype to test

Week 5: Test to Use

Week 6: Final project showcase

Sourcing challenges and meeting teams

Three focus groups conducted with our two partner organizations allowed us to gather 30+ everyday challenges from senior citizens. Also, through these sessions, we were able to identify individuals from these communities who were intrigued by the idea of using 3D printing to create solutions for everyday life activities. They eagerly signed up for the six-week workshop, along with six graduate students from Cornell Tech with a technology background, and six graduate students from WCM CTSC with a focus on health and medicine.

Summary of challenges presented to teams:

“How might we create products for consumers which will…”

  • Help  to remember everyday tasks
  • Help with getting dressed
  • Help with limited strength/dexterity to use household products
  • Create, modify, or augment existing products to improve  accessibility i.e. grasping, holding, twisting, opening, lifting, identifying
  • Create a product that enhances the ability to carry essentials outside of the home
  • Help to enhance physical activity with limited mobility

personal accessories

The first session included a course overview and meetings with student mentors (Ph.D. and Masters students at Cornell Tech with expertise in product design and 3D printing) and teaching staff. The teams were also introduced to Tinkercad software, a simple, easy to learn, online 3D design app, that they would use to develop their projects.

Empathize and define your challenge

The teams developed an avatar based on knowledge of the user population. Using this model, they developed likely scenarios for how these personas might benefit from custom-designed solutions.

For example: One team’s persona named, ‘Betty,’ is a sociable 80 year old woman who lives alone with advanced arthritis, but wants to be independent. She has hand weakness, stiff joints, and overall limited hand mobility and dexterity. Her medication makes her thirsty, she drinks water throughout the day, and carries a water bottle that she struggles to open.

team communication
problem solving

Idea to prototype

Teams were given materials such as clay, paper, cardboard, wire, fabric, different types of stretchable materials, recycled tubes, etc. to build their first rough physical model. They were encouraged to use props to support their scenario (i.e. folding walker, jars and bottles, clothing, etc).



Teams also received 3D printing training and by the end of the workshop were able  to design using Tinkercad, prepare printing files using Ultimaker Cura, and printed their prototypes using Ultimaker printers. During the next three weeks,  the teams met with student mentors and teaching staff  to refine their initial prototype. In some cases, students found that their designs replicated already existing products. In these cases, teams customized the existing designs using 3D printed parts.


Tinkercad Prototype

Final project showcase

Teams had a chance to demonstrate their final prototype and get constructive feedback from potential users and industry experts during the final showcase. The audience for this showcase included the Roosevelt Island community, Cornell Tech and Weill Cornell Medicine students, staff, and faculty.


final prototypes



walker prototype
walker prototype
walker prototype


Challenge 5




Oded Shorer (Principal, Milestone Studio)

Dana Schwimmer (Designer, Milestone Studio)

Gary Zamchick (Strategic Designer in Residence | Cornell Tech)

Adrian Vatchinsky (Developer in Residence | Cornell Tech)

Stephen Lang ((User Experience Designer-in-Residence | Cornell Tech)

Neta Tamir (PhD Student | Cornell Tech)

Jivesh Tolani (MBA Student | Cornell Tech)

Karla Polo Garcia (Design Intern |Cornell Tech)


[1] Pham, D.T., & Gault, R.S. (1998 ). "A comparison of rapid prototyping technologies." International Journal of Machine

Tools and Manufacture 38(10-11), 1257-1287.

[2] Hatch, M. (2014). The Maker Movement Manifesto: Rules for Innovation in the New World of Crafters, Hackers, and Tinkerers. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.References