Montana State University

Students in interdisciplinary, collaborative MSU lab build new product to help dementia patients

June 13, 2016 -- By Emily Stifler Wolfe for the MSU News Service

A Montana State University student venture recently finished second place in the John Ruffatto Start Up Challenge. Pictured from left are entrepreneur and team advisor Joe Sample, MSU mechanical engineering student Seth Carlstrom, MSU graphic design student Shae Stein and Blackstone Launchpad director Les Craig. Photo courtesy Shae Stein.

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BOZEMAN – When Montana State University student Shae Stein saw the shower chair used to bathe dementia patients at Bozeman’s Highgate Senior Living Center, he knew he wanted to help create something different – a chair that would work better for both patients and their caregivers.

“It was so sparse, and one of the greatest fears of the elderly is falling,” said Stein, describing a wobbly chair made of PVC plastic.

An Honors College student and a graphic design major, Stein was visiting Highgate last winter for innovative ideation, a class with MSU’s Design Sandbox for Engaged Learning. DSEL, as it is called, is an interdisciplinary collaboration space launched in 2015 as part of the College of Arts and Architecture where faculty, students and industry professionals use design thinking to solve myriad challenges. In the lab, which is open to any student, business, graphic design, engineering and other students come together to tackle unusual and challenging design questions and gain experience working as a member of a team. The class is taught by a team of faculty from three different colleges – arts and architecture, business and engineering.

Nurses at Highgate told Stein and his classmates that patients – disoriented by the water pouring over their heads, uncomfortable on the cold plastic and afraid of falling – often fought their caregivers during bathing, biting and bruising them. In addition, the chairs were difficult to clean.

So Stein and the other members of his DSEL team, which included engineering students Seth Carlstrom and Brandon Western, and business student Alex McLeod, designed a new, more stable shower chair. It had warm water flowing directly from the chair itself, which eliminated the shock of touching a cold chair and prevented a patient from grabbing the showerhead. They called their product SecondNature.

To create the concept, the team used the “design thinking” process they learned through DSEL. This method focuses on the needs of a product’s end user, employing empathy, brainstorming, iterative design, rapid prototyping and critique, explained Meta Newhouse, MSU associate professor in graphic design and DSEL’s founding director.

Both times the class has been offered, there were more applicants than spots, Newhouse said.

“I think [DSEL’s innovative ideation] is one of the most marketable classes,” said adjunct engineering professor Jay Zignego, who team-taught the class with Newhouse and adjunct marketing professor Jake Cook.

Zignego cited the ability of the class “to have a business student talking with an engineering student to say, ‘How do we execute this? How do we get it to market?’ And also having a design student there to give the aesthetics.”

In another DSEL course, called farm to market, marketing, nutrition and food science and graphic design students helped small farmers look at how they can increase profitability by bringing a value-added product to market. Newhouse noted that Stanford and MIT have similar design-thinking programs, but only for graduate students, whereas MSU’s is open to undergrads.

Human-centered design is also catching hold in the business world, according to Cook.

“Brands that do it right for the user have a much better chance of succeeding,” he said.     

The SecondNature product didn’t end with the class itself.

When Carlstrom’s engineering capstone and Stein’s design thesis coincided the year after their DSEL class, they resumed work on the shower chair, gathering input from healthcare providers and bringing in another engineering student, Sterling McCullough. They implemented a new, more ergonomic and therapeutic design, and worked with MSU’s Blackstone LaunchPad to evolve their business plan.

At the University of Montana's recent state-wide John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge, SecondNature took second place overall and received awards for most innovative product, best undergraduate startup plan and people’s choice. The team brought home $13,500 in prize money.

Now, with interest from local investors, Stein and Carlstrom are working with Carlstrom’s employer, Salient Technologies, to build their first full prototype.

They credit both DSEL and the Blackstone LaunchPad at MSU for helping to get the project started.

“It was that idea behind creating something real that can change people’s lives,” Stein said. “Something we can carry on outside of school… There needs to be more of this.”

For those interested in sponsoring a project in a future DSEL course, or for those interested in taking a DSEL course, please contact Newhouse at

Contact: Meta Newhouse, (406) 994-2201 or