ICS’ Marcus Johnson Co-Teaches Engineering Courses At Yale University
Marcus and Dr. Adrezin are co-teaching two popular Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS) design electives — Computer Aided Engineering and Advanced Design and Analysis of Machines. Both courses are centered around a curriculum for students that focuses on the design and development of technology that supports people with physical disabilities. While Dr. Adrezin, a former rehabilitation engineer, leads classes in professional design using computer-aided design software, Marcus leads teams of small groups via Zoom and offers guidance on how to successfully design accessible, functional devices that can be used by members of the disability community.
Connecting as friends and educators
More than 30 years ago, Marcus — who was a 20-year-old dancer who had just completed his second year at the Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York — was a passenger in a car accident that left him with a spinal cord injury.
Following the accident, Marcus was taken for treatment at the hospital where Dr. Adrezin, then a rehabilitation engineer, supported Marcus and set up his first communication aides. The two connected, and, years later, have remained good friends. Both would eventually collaborate at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, located on the edge of Manhattan’s East Village. Dr. Adrezin, who at the time was teaching a rehabilitation engineering course for Cooper Union’s high school program, was able to secure approval to have Marcus co-teach the course with him. Together, they focused on educating students on the disability community, and guided students as they embarked on projects focused on aiding people with disabilities. Marcus and Dr. Adrezin would later connect again, teaching mechanical engineering students at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
“We found our students took their projects much more seriously when Marcus began to teach,” said Dr. Adrezin. “Now at Yale, students have loved working on projects to support people with disabilities. It is critical to have the consumer with a disability as part of the design process.”
Marcus described his bond with Dr. Adrezin as personal and one that is rooted in meaningful friendship and trust. The opportunity to co-teach once again with his friend, while highlighting the significance of disability competence and accessibility and sharing his lived experience as he offers guidance on projects, has been rewarding. Marcus also commended Yale University, which immediately considered Dr. Adrezin’s recommendation of having Marcus co-teach courses and officially appointed Marcus as a lecturer within days.
“I do feel honored,” Marcus said. “Ron is a great professor and friend. I’m a mentor to Ron’s daughter, Lauren, who is a graduate student focusing on counseling. Ron has always looked at things from the disability perspective, it’s what I appreciate and love about him. He gave me an opportunity to teach again, and we haven’t missed a beat. I have always enjoyed teaching and giving back.”
Lessons on design and disability
A point of focus for Marcus as an instructor is educating the next generation of students on disability, the challenges people with disabilities face daily when it comes to accessibility, and the importance of an equitable world.
Through both courses at Yale, Marcus said, he and Dr. Adrezin have been able to shine a light on all of those areas. Students have been incredibly receptive and eager to learn, all while collaborating with the instructors on projects focused on supporting people with disabilities.
“There’s great interaction,” Marcus said. “They’re very bright, they ask questions, they’re comfortable. They want to learn about my lived experience and they want feedback on their projects. It’s been a great experience.”
Students in the Computer Aided Engineering course use SolidWorks, a software program where they digitally design 2D and 3D projects that would support people with disabilities, while adding motion to see how their designs would function. Students have been designing everything from accessible desks to accessible office spaces. Several students created an accessible floor plan for Yale’s cafeteria that would ensure that students, faculty and others with disabilities could easily navigate the space. For his Advanced Design and Analysis of Machines course, students are immersed in physically designing and prototyping devices in the classroom, focusing on numerous projects, such as designing accessible doors.
“People with disabilities are the invisible population,” Marcus said. “Through these courses, we’re opening the eyes of students to understand this population, and we’re opening the doors to encourage them to use their skills to design from the disability perspective.”
Knowledge is power
As the semester progresses, students are thinking critically and on a broader scale for how their work can positively support people with disabilities living in the community. Regardless of what career paths they choose, Marcus said, they will carry their experiences learned in the classroom with them into the world, with an awareness and understanding of people with disabilities, the need for greater accessibility and the importance of using their skillsets to help foster a more equitable world for all.
“These are our future leaders and they are now advocates,” Marcus said. “I’ve told them, take what you learn, and apply it in your professional careers and personal life. We live in a world that tries to limit people with disabilities. But students now know, we cannot be limited. We are here to stay.”
About The Independent
The Independent is ICS’ official newsletter, featuring the latest stories around ICS, its members and staff, as well as news on what’s happening in the disability community at large.