Berks' Marietta Scanlon making the most of Lehigh Valley LaunchBox grant

READING, Pa. — Marietta Scanlon, lecturer in engineering at Penn State Berks and formerly Penn State Lehigh Valley, received one of Lehigh Valley’s first LaunchBox grants for her team’s software program, Voices Renewed, which enhances the life-story collection process for individuals with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Team members included Lehigh Valley students Mahdi Chaker and Michael Cimerola.

The software was created as part of an engaged scholarship initiative developed by Scanlon that paired students at Penn State Lehigh Valley with residents at Phoebe Ministries, specifically Phoebe Allentown. Inspired by her mother, Scanlon and her students designed products to help care for and honor those affected by dementia and Alzheimer's

Scanlon’s mother, Lucy Cappucci, was a former teacher who lived with her husband in Boston when the first signs of the disease became apparent. At times, her family seemed confused, and frustrated, by her forgetfulness and out-of-character behavior. Eventually, one of her daughters urged her to see her doctor. In 2007, she underwent a brain scan and the result confirmed her family's suspicions: She had Alzheimer's.

If there was a positive side to the diagnosis, it was that the frustration Cappucci’s family felt when interacting with her subsided. They now could focus on what they needed to do to care for her.

Scanlon had been living in Reading with her husband and their children for some time when she received the news of her mother's diagnosis. She did all she could to help, but distance proved to be a frustrating obstacle.

Since geography limited hands-on help with her mother's care, she turned to what she knew best: engineering and educating. She had only recently joined the faculty at Penn State Lehigh Valley when she attended a meeting at the Penn State DuBois campus and met another professor who described an engineering design project he was working on with students. It got her thinking that maybe there was a way to give her students some real-world experience while also honoring her mother.

Scanlon reached out to Leigh Cundari, an instructor in Lehigh Valley's Rehabilitation and Human Services program (RHS), with her idea. Cundari, in turn, urged Scanlon to talk with Sandy Massetti, executive vice president and chief healthcare officer at Phoebe Ministries and a member of the RHS advisory board.

Once Scanlon had a community partner on board, she pitched the idea to her students, mostly second-year engineering and biology majors. Would anyone be interested in designing products that could help individuals with Alzheimer's? It would be on a volunteer basis and not for credit, but would give them valuable experience in engineering design to add to their résumé. Somewhat to her surprise, about 20 students showed an interest in the project, with many citing their own personal experience with a family member with dementia as their motivation.

Scanlon organized the class to mirror the experience engineers would have in the real world. She took on the role of project manager and divided the class into five working groups. The students began brainstorming ideas during their weekly meetings outside class. But it wasn't until they had the chance to visit with residents in the memory support group at Phoebe that they truly began to understand the challenges facing the customer they were designing for.

As they progressed, the time remaining in the semester began to dwindle. Scanlon wanted the students to have the experience of seeing an engineering project through from conception to completion and delivery to the client. She also felt they deserved to receive some academic credit for their work, especially if it would continue in the spring semester. To that end, she approached campus administration about offering it as an engineering design course for credit, and 23 of her students enrolled.

With their concepts approved by Phoebe, the spring semester focused on designing, building and ultimately delivering their projects, which they did at an event involving Phoebe staff and residents, as well as the students' parents. After watching the students present their projects, Phoebe Allentown's executive director, Michelle Staska-Pier, praised the students' efforts.

"You did this without any promise of credit. That's what we look for in future leaders," said Staska-Pier.

In what Scanlon describes as a somewhat ironic twist, it was between the two semesters that her mother passed away.

"It has been such a blessing to work with these kids, to watch them get this great résumé-boosting experience coupled with a new perspective on humanity," she said. "As potential engineers, the value of that is hard to quantify. It has also helped me come to terms with my own experience and inspired me to make this a sustainable program."

The projects are currently being used at Pheobe’s Allentown facility. It is the software program, however, that shows the most promise. The ability to conduct life-story assessments to create personalized care plans is integral to improving patient care. Voices Renewed is working with Phoebe Ministries to advance the life-story collection process and is also developing software for life-story collection methods for the general population.

Lehigh Valley LaunchBox, a University- and community-sponsored business accelerator program, awarded $50,000 in micro grants in January to 13 projects for the program’s initial award cycle. The 2015-16 portfolio consisted of awards ranging from $1,000 to $8,000. The grant recipients have been able to utilize the co-working and meeting spaces of Lehigh Valley LaunchBox, located at Velocity, City Center Lehigh Valley’s startup business incubator in downtown Allentown. This space was donated by City Center.

Lehigh Valley LaunchBox was created as part of the Invent Penn State initiative. Invent Penn State is focused on leveraging Penn State’s research, knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit to bring to market needed ideas, products and services.

For more information about Lehigh Valley LaunchBox, visit lehighvalley.psu.edu/launchbox. For more information about the Invent Penn State initiative, visit invent.psu.edu.

Last Updated April 28, 2016