University of Alberta: Cross-disciplinary program will train industry-ready grads in growing field of SMART technology

University of Alberta students will get cross-disciplinary, work-integrated learning in one of Canada’s fastest-growing industries, thanks to a major grant announced today.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has awarded $1.6 million to the U of A for the Sensory-Motor Adaptive Rehabilitation Technology (SMART) CREATE training program to train up to 120 graduate and undergraduate students over the next six years.

Nine Canadian companies that develop SMART technology such as rehabilitation devices, exoskeletons, prosthetics, orthotics and wearable technologies will help shape the program and mentor students during work placements in an industry that is estimated to be worth more than US$100 billion by 2026.

The students will be drawn from and exposed to experts from the faculties of Rehabilitation Medicine; Medicine & Dentistry; Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation; and Engineering, building on the U of A SMART Network, a leader in neural engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence and new devices such as implantable neuromodulation microsystems, robotic training systems and advanced artificial limbs.

“We take all of our research on communications, technologies and human/machine interaction, and we build devices to improve human health and quality of life for people with impairments and disabilities,” said Jacqueline Hebert, who will lead the training program and is herself cross-appointed to several of those faculties, as well as being the medical lead for adult amputee rehabilitation at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital and a member of the U of A’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute.

“The goal of this training program is to break down silos and bring all of these different disciplines together, so the students really understand the importance of considering the user in their design, development, implementation and followup phases,” Hebert said.

“We want to be involved in the community and be a part of the students’ journeys,” said Alex Lucas, director of quality verification at video game developer BioWare, a studio of Electronic Arts and one of the industrial partners for the program. “It feels like there’s a gold rush going on right now for this advanced talent.

“Edmonton is positioned globally to be a leader in machine learning and tangential fields,” Lucas said. “In order to stay competitive, we need opportunities that are both challenging and rewarding to keep our best people local.”

Giving grads real-world experience
Students will gain a combination of soft and technical skills that top employers surveyed said they seek in new staff—from complex problem-solving, emotional intelligence, project management and entrepreneurship to machine learning, data analytics and human factors. All of the industrial partner companies indicated they will be hiring for six or more new positions within the next five years.

Students placed with BioWare will use machine learning to analyze accessibility of game features such as menus, colour or closed captioning, as well as factors such as “time to fun.”

“We are looking for our software to appeal to the broadest range of players by removing obstacles and allowing them to engage with the game the way our designers intend,” said Lucas. “We’re starting to realize there’s overlap between how engaging and fun a game is and how accessible it is. Often those solutions are drawn with the same brush.”

Lucas noted that while the students will receive unique work opportunities by being exposed to the technical challenges of developing video games, he expects the work placements to be mutually beneficial. “We are looking to the students to leverage their rare and specialized knowledge to support the growth and evolution of the games we develop at BioWare as well.”

“We plan to give students the real-world experience they need to work in industry or start their own business,” explained Hebert. “And we want industry leaders to evaluate the training program and say yes, this is preparing your students for a job in my company.”

Building on U of A expertise
The SMART Network, which was founded by U of A professor of medicine Vivian Mushahwar, Canada Research Chair in Functional Restoration, brings together more than 40 researchers from a variety of disciplines including biology, neuroscience, computing science, surgery, rehabilitation, critical care and nursing.

“The new training program really is a recognition of the strong translational research program we have built across multiple investigators at the university,” said Hebert. “We have a great core of researchers here who care about translation and the impact of their work and who are committed to training the future generations that will bring this work forward to the next level.”

Injuries or diseases such as stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury, amputation and multiple sclerosis lead to sensory and motor impairments and affect 10 per cent of Canadians and 50 per cent of people in long-term care. The cost to the health-care system is estimated at more than $10 billion annually, and the personal, vocational and societal cost is considerable.

SMART devices assist people with maintaining mobility, reaching and grasping, and accomplishing daily tasks. Equity and diversity will be a key principle built into the CREATE training program, both in the selection of students and in the design and implementation of devices to ensure equitable access.

“‘Nothing for us without us’ is the rallying theme for people with impairments and disabilities,” Hebert said. “This will be a paradigm shift in the field, but if we don’t start educating entry-level students now, we will never be able to implement change.”

Hebert noted that developing further SMART technology expertise stands to benefit all Albertans.

“For the average Albertan, when you get sick or ill or injured, you want the best care possible,” she said. “We are developing the best care possible right here and we are going to make sure it’s available for patients here.”

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