Collaborative Design Takes on Food Allergies

Posted September 21, 2009

Lucas Lindale is allergic to peanuts. His mother and adjunct instructor Michelle Lindale recalls the day that she and her husband Adam found out just how severe Lucas' allergy is. "He was approximately 18 months old, and his allergist said that his allergy was off the charts; he had never seen anything like it. Lucas could have a life-threatening allergic reaction just from coming into contact with peanuts, which is why he carries an auto-injectable epinephrine (epi) pen with him at all times, in case he or someone else needs to administer the drug in case of a reaction." The Lindales made many changes throughout their home to accommodate Lucas' allergy, but Michelle was surprised to learn how difficult it would be for Lucas out in the real world. "So many children's activities revolve around food. Lunchtime, snacks, birthday and holiday parties, field trips, Scout meetings ??and children just naturally want to share and trade. It's very difficult, and so many people don't want to be put into a situation where they might have to use Lucas'epi pen."

After a near-fatal episode about two years ago, Lucas now understands the severity of his allergy and naturally assumes that the adults in his life are aware of his needs and know how to handle emergencies. Unfortunately, other parents, teachers, and school staff have little or no knowledge regarding peanut allergies, their severity, or how to react.

Michelle brought the issue to the collaborative design class to see if there was a way that students from several facets of design could devise an inclusive program that would address not only treating Lucas' allergy, but also communication about allergy issues, including inclusion and exclusion, and possibly even develop new products that could make it easier for Lucas to deal with his allergy.

After conducting research at various related organizations, including an elementary school, architectural and interior design firms, and a manufacturer of medical devices, the students devised a three-pronged approach: improved communication regarding peanut allergies, new products that can reduce exposure to peanut proteins, and a redesigned epi pen.

Students named their new company UMeWe, utilizing bright colors and a friendly font to connect with young children. The centerpiece of the communication is a proposed web site, where parents, educators, family, and others can learn about peanut allergies, take a quiz, and become certified in their knowledge regarding peanut allergies.

In the second phase of the project, students examined the aspects of inclusion and exclusion for children with peanut allergies. At school, Lucas eats his lunch at the "peanut-free" table, with other children who have peanut allergies. He would like to be able to eat with his friends, wherever he would like in the lunchroom. The class designed several prototype products with that purpose in mind. First, a pull-apart lunch table separates into sections, so that each child has his own eating area. Gaps between each section create a visual barrier and reduce the chance of cross-contamination. For children who bring a lunch to school, a lunch box with a built-in roll-out mat provides a clean space for eating. Lastly, peanut proteins cannot be killed like bacteria, but a mild detergent can reduce their effect. Cleaning wipes that wipe on purple and then dry clear are fun for kids to use and ensure that the entire surface has been washed.

The last aspect the class addressed was the epi pen itself. Built for adult users, the design has not changed in nearly 30 years. Each epinephrine dose is pre-packaged in a plastic tube, which the user has to insert into the pen in order to administer it. The pack Lucas wears around his waist is about the size of a landline telephone handset, and holds his pen and two doses. The redesigned pen is smaller, easier to load and use, and clips onto a carabiner that Lucas can snap on to his belt loop.

Michael Hibbeln, Principal of Rougewood Elementary in Rockford, Michigan, had high praise for the project. "I'm looking at this one-page plan that's part of the communication pieces, and I can begin using it with my staff tomorrow. A parent brought in a 25-page document regarding peanut allergies, but this is much easier to read and understand. Overall, I'm impressed with how well-rounded this approach is." Principal Hibbeln was also impressed with the products, partic- ularly the wipes. "I have a kindergarten student who has her own eating mat, but that mat is wiped off with the same cleaning cloth used to wipe off all the tables in the cafeteria. The wipes would be an excellent product."

Rick Shorey, Senior Principal Engineer/Project Manager, Avalon Laboratories, also had high praise for the students' work, saying that while it wasn't possible to change the drug (epinephrine) or its delivery device (the needle), changing the container was very feasible and could be done in as little as six months.

And what does Lucas think of the project? "I wish we had tables like that at my school, and the new epi-pen design is really comfortable in my hand." Adds his mom, "That tells me that not only is he comfortable holding the epi-pen, but he is also more comfortable with the idea of using it on himself." Professor Gayle DeBruyn is hoping that UMeWe will go beyond a classroom project and become an actual business, adding, "All things can be approached as a design problem and can be solved. It's just a matter of defining the problem, understanding it, and gaining acceptance for the solution."