Problem-Based Learning Project Results in
Real-World Benefits

Since 2009, when Michele Dischino joined a National Science Foundation project that promoted problem-based learning (PBL) methods in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the Associate Professor of Technology and Engineering Education has been researching ways to incorporate PBL into her Introduction to Engineering class. During a 2011 interview, Dischino explained her interest: “PBL is an instructional approach where students learn content by actively and collaboratively solving authentic, real-world problems. Research shows that PBL improves student learning and retention, critical thinking, problem-solving skills, teamwork, and the ability to apply knowledge.” And after attending a workshop about including a community engagement component into coursework in any discipline, Dischino felt strongly that any project her class took on should have positive, real-world benefits.

During her own college career, Dischino’s coursework included working with an assisted living facility to help solve a care issue for a disabled resident. The resident was unable to press a traditional call button, so Dischino and her fellow students engineered a breath-operated mechanism to activate the button, solving a critical issue for the resident.

This spring, Dischino’s engineering students were able to tackle their first PBL project. Connecting with Apple Rehab in Rocky Hill and the nonprofit Chariots of Hope in Bloomfield, Dischino found a worthy project—repairing used wheelchairs from Apple Rehab, then donating the refurbished chairs to Chariots of Hope to distribute to disadvantaged, disabled people around the world. “Each wheelchair was different,” explained Dischino. “The students had to figure out what needed to be done to make each chair functional. Some chairs had missing parts, and all of them needed cleaning and general refurbishment. It was a problem-solving project in a socially meaningful and hands-on way.”

Michaela Melillo reviews a schematic of a wheelchair while Mark Beloin adjusts a newly installed footrest.

Using their engineering skills and parts from additional wheelchairs, four groups of students successfully completed the challenge, and during finals week presented their “projects” to Chariots of Hope board member Paul Bobbitt. “Our mission is to provide mobility to disadvantaged persons, so they can have a better quality of life and participate in community activities and services,” Bobbitt said. “Our thanks to these CCSU students for their support.”

Chariots of Hope estimates that there are 18 million bedridden people worldwide. Wheelchairs are a luxury in many poor countries, yet countless chairs sit idle in the United States. “I’ve always been one to help out people in need, and this is such a good cause,” said student Michaela Melillo, who participated in the project. “Life is so hard for people without mobility, and it’s satisfying knowing how much of a difference these wheelchairs will make for them.”

Associate Professor Michele Dischino’s Introduction to Engineering class with their “final projects.” Front row: Kevin Bartlett, Benjamin Godfrey, Mark Beloin, Josh Telep; back row: Dischino, Chariots of Hope board member Paul Bobbitt, Crystal Manville, Timothy Vecchitto, Eleni Tsagdis, Jakub Owczarski, Michaela Melillo, Shermine Cianciolo, Enea Shallas, Keith Pettway.

Now, with the first PBL project successfully completed, Dischino is confident that future classes will find opportunities to help others while gaining practical engineering skills. Dischino said that students not enrolled in the class also showed interest in the wheelchair project. She is hoping this interest expands to the club level, where students could focus on hands-on projects that help others in the community and around the world.

If you would like to support the CCSU students in their work refurbishing wheelchairs for the Chariots of Hope project, you may make a secure online gift by clicking here and selecting "Chariots of Hope."