New Smart Apartment Offers Occupational Therapy Assistant Students Practical Learning Experiences



Lindsay Strawderman with Jose Ruby

Lindsay Strawderman, an OTA student, points out the user-friendly controls of the wall oven to Jose Ruby, an Allegany County Public Schools Transition student. 

New ACM Smart Apartment Offers Occupational Therapy Assistant Students Practical Learning Experiences 

CUMBERLAND, Md. (Mar. 11, 2024) – When occupational therapist assistant (OTA) majors at Allegany College of Maryland (ACM) want to better understand how to help people with physical, mobility, and cognitive challenges, they head to their on-campus “smart” apartment. 

In February, Allegany College of Maryland unveiled a 1,200-square foot Smart Apartment to provide hands-on practical experiences for occupational therapy assistant students and learning and training opportunities for the community. The apartment project was funded through a Career and Technical Education Innovation Grant from the Maryland Higher Education Commission and by ACM as a simulation and demonstration space.

It’s an apartment for experiential learning. 
The thought behind the simulation space is that OTA students learn more by doing than by watching simulations, according to Alex Grimm, an academic fieldwork coordinator and instructor within the OTA program.

Grimm, a 2018 graduate of the OTA program, emphasizes the importance of experiential learning: "Occupational therapy is working with everyday activities, so we wanted to simulate both what to have in a home and what it's like to be in a home representative of someone with daily living challenges." 

Having the Smart Apartment nearby offers OTA students the chance to test what they learn in the classroom to gain new skills. This type of hands-on, practical learning experience prepares them for real-life situations with individuals of all ages and abilities before they enter their fieldwork placements and the workforce. “It’s a place where students can authentically replicate occupational rehabilitation and train for real-life scenarios,” explained Jeff Hopkins, who directs the college’s occupational therapy assistant program.

It feels like home. 
By design, the 1,200-square-foot Smart Apartment mirrors a typical home environment. Within the different rooms of the wheelchair-accessible and ADA-compliant apartment, students learn how to apply and adapt their knowledge of occupational therapy for a range of situations.

  • The apartment features full-size working appliances, utilities, and furnishings, including a sit-to-stand hospital bed and an array of touchless devices, app-controlled motorized blinds, and voice-controlled units.
  • It has six separate rooms, including a kitchen/dining area, living room, bathroom/laundry room, bedroom, storage area, and an observation/conference room.

From the observation/conference room, instructors can use the apartment’s system of tilt-and-pan cameras, microphones, and intercoms to record simulations or offer real-time instruction to OTA students. “Individuals with occupational and mobility challenges can also offer feedback for students by taking part in learning demonstrations,” said Grimm. 

Grimm plans to include some apartment furnishings to challenge OTA students. “Students leave here and go into home environments that aren’t too perfect or ‘smart,’ so we also want to prepare them with skills for those experiences.” 

It can be a place for community learning. 
The Smart Apartment has a secondary use as a demonstration space for community education.

The apartment is a showroom of high-tech, ADA-compliant appliances and adaptive technology.

  • Using the Smart Apartment, OTA students and faculty members can better educate individuals about practical applications of technology in daily living, from inexpensive items like Smart LED light bulbs to high-end appliances like a French Door wall oven.
  • The apartment’s smart lighting can be controlled by using an app or an Alexa device.
  • Its kitchen has an induction countertop, a wireless refrigerator camera, and small app-controlled cooking appliances like a digital sous vide and rice cooker to help with meal preparation.

Grimm envisions another use of the Smart Apartment as a place for training sessions and continuing education programs for area partners. Fire and rescue squads have expressed interest in using the apartment to practice their rescue and transport skills. 

“It’s an active, real-life working space now.” 
This semester, the occupational therapy assistant program partnered with the Allegany County Public Schools Community-based Transition program at ACM for a series of small group activities in the Smart Apartment.

The partnership yielded valuable interactions for both the Transition program students and the OTA students. OTA students learn how to remain client-centered while developing and leading activities with the students from the Community-based Transition program. For the ACPS Transition students, it was a welcome field trip across ACM’s campus and an opportunity to be with ACM students their age. With support from OTA students, Transition students took in-room scavenger hunts, practiced performing daily living tasks, making snacks or meals, building skills for independent living, and learning to name emotions and feelings. They also worked one-on-one with OTA students to practice their writing skills.

For more information about the Smart Apartment or the OTA program at Allegany College of Maryland, please call 301-784-5538.  

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