A Return to Jamaica Brings Seven Student-Invented Devices to Help People and Wildlife

Penn students have been building their knowledge and hands-on experience in places all over the world through Penn Global Seminars. Last May, “Robotics and Rehabilitation” brought Penn students back to the tropical island of Jamaica to collaborate with local university students and make an impact on recovery and quality of life for patients in Kingston and beyond. 

Course leaders Camillo Jose (CJ) Taylor, Raymond S. Markowitz President’s Distinguished Professor in Computer and Information Science (CIS), and Michelle J. Johnson, Associate Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Perelman School of Medicine and Associate Professor in Bioengineering (BE) and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) at Penn Engineering, brought the first cohort of students to the island in 2019. 

“CJ and I are both Jamaicans by birth,” says Johnson. “We were both excited to introduce the next generation of engineers to robotics, rehabilitation and the process of culturally sensitive design in a location that we are personally connected to.” 

As they built relationships with colleagues at the University of West Indies, Mona (UWI, Mona) and the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTECH), both Johnson and Taylor worked to tie the goals of the course to the location.

“In the initial iteration of the course, our goal was to focus on the applications of robotics to rehabilitation in a developing country where it is necessary to create solutions that are cost effective and will work in under-resourced settings,” says Taylor. 

Taylor and Johnson wanted to make the course a regular offering, however, due to COVID-related travel restrictions, it wasn’t until last spring that they were able to bring it back. But when they did, they made up for lost time and expanded the scope of the course to include solving health problems for both people and the environment.

“While we started with a focus on people, we realized that the health and quality of life of a community is also impacted by the health of the environment,” says Taylor. “Jamaica has rich terrestrial and marine ecosystems, but those resources need to be monitored and regulated. We ventured into developing robotics tools to make environmental monitoring more effective and cost-friendly.”

One of those student-invented tools was a climate survey drone called “BioScout.” 

“Our aim was to create a drone to monitor the ecosystem and wildlife in Jamaica,” says Rohan Mehta, junior in Systems Science and Engineering. “We wanted to help researchers and rangers who need to monitor wildlife and inspect forest sectors without entering and disturbing territories, but there were no available drones that met all of the following criteria necessary for the specific environment: affordable, modular, water-resistant and easy to repair. So we made our own.” 


Students smiling and holding a drone, called "BioScout," which helps to monitor wildlife and nature preserves.
Penn Engineering students and students from the University of West Indies, Mona and the University of Technology, Jamaica designed BioScout to help monitor wildlife.

Another team of students created a smart buoy to reduce overfishing. The buoy was equipped with an alarm that goes off when fishermen get too close to a no-fishing zone.

Five young men hold a red and white buoy in front of a Jamaican beach.
The collaborative team of students hold up their smart buoy which can help protect the populations of local fish species.

Five other student teams dove into projects aligned to the original goals of the course. Their devices addressed patients’ decreased mobility due to diabetes, strokes and car accidents. These projects were sponsored by the Sir John Golding Rehabilitation Center.

One of which, the GaitMate, was engineered to help stroke patients who had lost partial muscle control regain their ability to walk.  

“We developed a device that supports a patient’s weight and provides sensory feedback to help correct their form and gait as they walk on a treadmill, ultimately enhancing the recovery process and providing some autonomy to the patient,” says Taehwan Kim, senior in BE. “The device is also relatively cheap and simple, making it an option for a wide variety of physical therapy needs in Jamaica and other countries.”

A group of four smiling young students, one wearing a harness, stand under a wooden gate.
Students test the GaitMate harness and structure as a tool to help recovering patients walk.

A similar device, the “Walk Master 3000,” was designed specifically to assist patients with drop foot, a condition where a patient has difficulty picking up the front part of their foot. This condition is caused by a pinched nerve commonly seen in those who have suffered a stroke. 

“Having the opportunity to design and build this device was very rewarding,” says Melina Daniilidis, junior in CIS. “My grandmother suffered a ministroke a few years ago, and in combination with other health problems, her mobility has deteriorated greatly and she can no longer walk independently. The full-body harness and the bodyweight alleviation from the overhead system allows for patients like my grandmother to correct their gait without the fear of falling.” 

Young people pose smiling and standing around a metal bar structure with a person in a wheelchair.
The Walk Master 3000 supports patients’ body weight as they relearn how to walk.

Building real-world devices and almost instantaneously seeing their benefit is only one unique opportunity students can expect from this course. 

The collaboration was the essence of the project,” says Daniilidis. “I would say my favorite thing about visiting Jamaica was meeting its people. If it weren’t for their kindness and devotion to making our project a success, we would not have been able to build our device. Coming from a computer science background, I knew nothing of mechanical engineering or of using the machines in the workshop, but the engineers and students at University of Technology, Jamaica helped turn our sketches into a robust technology. I was even inspired to take Penn’s ‘Intro to Mechanical Design’ course the following semester.” 

Course leaders and colleagues at the collaborating Jamaican institutions came away with reinvigorated motivation, too. 

“We have been inspired watching our students realize what they are capable of,” says Taylor. “It is one thing to study concepts and techniques in a classroom, it is another to realize that you can use what you know to build something that will help someone else. This course requires a lot of effort from students and from our amazing TAs and staff. Our time in Jamaica is very intense with a lot of action and not a lot of sleep, but it is very satisfying to see things come together in the end.”

“The success of this course would not have been possible without the dedication of our co-teachers in Jamaica, Dr. Sasha Gay Wright at UWI-Mona and Dr. Paul Campbell at UTECH,” says Johnson. “We are incredibly grateful to have such invested colleagues and their enthusiastic students join this course and we are excited to continue working with them.” 

Taylor and Johnson hope to offer the next trip in the spring of 2026. They are developing new project ideas and new pedagogical approaches to offer more opportunities to students at Penn and in Jamaica.