UCL News


UCL-JDF Summer School - reinventing the wheelchair

15 August 2014

In July, UCL Engineering and UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering (CEGE) teamed up with the James Dyson Foundation to create an innovative week-long summer school.

UCL-JDF Summer School – reinventing the wheelchair

They challenged 16 Year 11 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and design and technology (D&T) students from across the UK to redesign the wheelchair for the modern age, giving them the opportunity to get to grips with what engineering really is and what engineers do.

The needs of wheelchair users and the way in which wheelchairs are used has evolved dramatically in the past 80 years, but with the exception of specialised and expensive wheelchair designs for specific sports or activities, the design of the wheelchair has remained relatively unchanged since Harry Jennings and Herbert Everest created the world's first collapsible wheelchair in 1933.

The 16 students, chosen from over 200 applicants, rose to the challenge and fully engaged with this hands-on and multi-disciplinary real world engineering project, exploring and experimenting with a wide variety of materials, tools and technologies. They were helped and guided by world-leading academics and industry experts from UCL Engineering, Dyson, James Dyson Foundation, NHS, BackUP Trust, and UCL Medical Sciences.

Split into four teams, the students were tasked to build and prototype models of their wheelchair design idea, testing, retesting and evaluating their designs over the course of the week. The teams were encouraged to explore, learn and combine a wide range of materials, tools and technologies, and transformed the CEGE labs and workspaces into their own open collaborative spaces. They also made good use of the Pedestrian Accessibility Movement Environment Laboratory (PAMELA) and learned how to code and measure biomechanical parameters in the Computer Science ENGduino labs.

It gave me invaluable knowledge, increased my confidence and I met lots of people.

Asa Lofstedt

The week ended at PAMELA where the teams presented their final designs to an audience of industry experts, academics, and wheelchair users. Congratulations to Team B for winning with its innovative design, and well done to all the students who took part. Medals for the winners and participants were designed and crafted at UCL with the help of the Institute of Making.

Commenting on the experience, student participant Charlotte Martin said: "The summer school was a brilliant experience. More than anything else I have ever done, it confirmed to me that I do want to apply for engineering later this year." 

Student participant Asa Lofstedt added: "It gave me invaluable knowledge, increased my confidence and I met lots of people."

The Summer School was also a chance to promote STEM and develop talent in young students, inspiring the next generation of engineers to consider all areas of engineering, from civil and mechanical engineering to computer sciences. The selection panel made a conscious effort to select the strongest candidates from both genders and from diverse backgrounds.

Thanks go to Dr Elpida Makrygianni for her tireless work over the week and in organising the summer school, Peter Finlayson (Dyson), Professor Steve Hailes (UCL Computer Science), Dr Steve Taylor (UCL Institute of Orthopaedics and Musculoskeletal Sciences), Mr Peter Smitham (Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital and UCL Division of Surgery) and Pete Donnelly (BackUP Trust), Dave Krupp and Andrew Symonds for helping to source the wheelchairs, and to Ian Seaton and the technicians in CEGE who gave generously of their time and resources to help make the students' designs a reality.

A special thanks to Dr Catherine Holloway (UCL CEGE), who devoted much of the week to working with the students, lending her expertise and experience to advising the teams on their designs.

View images of the work experience programme in the gallery below:


  • Adapted from original article by UCL CEGE


  • The winning team with their medals