Work with our Occupational Therapy students

Does your community have a health, disability, activity or social support focus? Would you value input to help achieve a goal?

Our students are creative problem solvers with a passion for activity and wellbeing who can work in partnership with you to investigate a need and develop a sustainable solution. The community need could be for any age group or other demographic, and should relate to occupation in some way, for example:

  • Encouraging participation in the community
  • Enabling access and a more independent lifestyle
  • Encouraging involvement in meaningful activities
  • Improving access to services

Community projects

From September to November, our Bachelor of Occupational Therapy final year students spend eight weeks working in pairs on community projects, using project management skills as well as their learning in occupational therapy practice and community development.

Below you can read examples of our student projects.

What the students will do

After the students have carried out a needs assessment, they will research the options for potential solutions. A project proposal will be prepared for your consideration so that the solution scope can be negotiated. Then the two students will design and implement the service, event, resource or activity agreed upon to meet the identified need.

One of our Occupational Therapy lecturers oversees each project to help ensure things go smoothly. The lecturer is available for advice and support and will provide project supervision for the students. The supervisor is responsible for evaluating the students’ performance alongside your contact person.

What we need from you

You will need to have an understanding of your own requirements, an open mind to consider suggestions, and a willingness to work with students to help achieve these outcomes.

If your organisation is selected for a community project, you will:

  • allocate a contact person who can make decisions and make things happen
  • contribute, in person, to the “Project Launch” by providing necessary information
  • be available to the student during their planning process
  • find any required budget for the project (which does not include students’ or lecturers’ time)
  • contribute to the project evaluation and each student’s evaluation
  • attend a presentation from the students about the project outcome.

Community placements

In their first year of study, students also do a placement in the community for three hours per week over a period of about three months, to support activities and projects that organisations are undertaking for the community, for example in schools, rest homes and agencies.

Contact us

If you would like to benefit from having our final year Occupational Therapy students work on a project with you, or can offer a placement to our first year students, please get in touch.

Image credit: Southern District Health Board, used with permission. All rights reserved.

Blind Low Vision NZ

Sense and sensibility

Sense and sensibility

People who are both deaf and blind will be able to learn what strategies work for others in similar circumstances.

Blind Low Vision NZ recognises that people who suffer dual sensory loss of hearing as well as vision find the world that much more complicated to navigate. Michelle Holland is one of the Deafblind Coordinators who help support this group of about 800 people in New Zealand.

Occupational Therapy students Kerri Batin and Esther Taofiga undertook research into the unique needs of the deafblind, including interviewing five deafblind people to hear their stories. The interviewees were asked how they overcame issues they experienced, to share tips and tricks that might help others too. There was a focus on negotiating their physical environment and using technology, and Te Whare Tapa Whā, which will help fill gaps in information which was already available to Blind Low Vision NZ.

The results of this research will be incorporated into an education package, and will also support an application for a grant to build an online platform that provides easy access to that education package.

February 2022


Connections Centre

Milk bottle top recycling

An interdisciplinary student project is supporting people with disabilities in meaningful work collecting, sorting, and shredding coloured milk bottle tops.

The Connections Centre offers supportive day programs for people living with physical and intellectual disabilities and their whānau. They aim to assist service users to follow their interests and develop engagement within the community. Connections is also passionate about recycling and minimising waste. They aim to repurpose products that might normally end up in the landfill.

An exciting new project will simultaneously:

  • provide meaningful work for Connections' service users which includes visible engagement with society, and 
  • provide an opportunity for milk bottle tops to be recycled, reducing waste going to landfill. 

Two Occupational Therapy students, Ana Amador-Preciado and Alex Potter, worked with Connections to help design and set up the service, with collection points in stores for people to drop off their milk bottle tops. Connections service users will visit the stories to collect the bottle tops. The bottle tops will be cleaned and sorted by colour and plastic type, so that the shredded plastic will be more suitable for recycling.

The shredding machine has been built to a Dutch design by our Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Trades students and their supervising staff with assistance from our EPICentre technicians. It incorporates a range of safety features to protect users. The machine has been donated to Connections Centre to be used by their service users for shredding the plastic milk bottle tops.

November 2022

Waitati School

Waitati School wetland

Occupational Therapy students helped Waitati School plan and prepare for restoration of a wetland on a damp part of their site.

Waitati School has a piece of unused land that is often damp or flooded. The Principal's vision for this land was to restore a wetland, that would provide both a space for quiet reflection and a place for children to learn and play. This would be a sustainability project that would also deliver wellbeing and learning outcomes.

Occupational Therapy students applied the Five Finger Framework to help the school progress this project: considering the research evidence, expert advice, information provided by the School (principal, staff, pupils and their whanau), the relevant policy and regulatory framework, and their own experience. 

As well as gathering input from the School community, they organised information for the Principal such as funding and council guidelines. They also networked with the community to gather resources and materials, arranging for Placemakers and Nichol’s Garden Centre to donate resources when the school is ready to proceed with the site development.

May 2022

Age Concern

Out and about

Knowing where to walk is a step in the right direction.

Dunedin has a wide range of walkways available to the residents, and walking is known to have physical, mental and social health benefits for all. However as people age their fitness levels and mobility can deteriorate which means some walkways might not be suitable for them.

Two Occupational Therapy students, Anna Adam and Amber Barry, worked with Age Concern to assess the physical accessibility of Dunedin walkways. They began with a survey of people aged over 60 through the Octagon Club. Survey participants had a range of ages and various levels of fitness. Most of them used a car to access walkways. The survey identified a need fore more toilets and seating on walkways.

Anna and Amber then carried out analysis of the most accessible walkways. They considered location and accessibility by bus, the length and gradient of the walkway, the track surface, whether there were toilets and seating available, and any other facilities and hazards.  All of this information has been compiled into a booklet which will be available from Age Concern to help older people make an informed choice about where to walk.

Sep 2020

Leslie Groves

Day to day

Older people with cognitive issues benefit from engaging activities.

Leslie Groves is a not-for-profit charitable organisation in Dunedin which provides residential care for those in need, particularly the elderly. Leslie Groves also provides a day programme for people who are living in the community with cognitive issues. Alexa Andrew at Leslie Groves asked if our Occupational Therapy students could help develop the day programme.

Prue Boult and Kelsey Bennett started by attending the programme on four days to observe what was already being done. Their recommendations to strengthen the programme included:

  • There was an opportunity to integrate more with rest home residents.
  • The programme would benefit from more sensory elements.
  • An alternative activity could be available rather than only offering one option at a time.
  • Activities should be designed to cater for different levels of ability.
  • There was an opportunity to design activities to build on what had been done the previous week.

Prue and Kelsey also investigated options for group outings, with a focus on accessibility and fun. They identified nine possibilities for consideration by Leslie Groves including a private art workshop, a tool demonstration, the Botanical Gardens, the SPCA, the Sports Hall of Fame and Toitū Otago Settlers Museum.

The project was well received by both the current facilitators of the day program and Alexa. The proposed community outings could also be used with the wider community of Leslie Groves' residents. The students supplied Leslie Grove with detailed manuals on what improvements they could make and the research evidence to back this up.

March 2020

Waitaki District Council

Transport troubles

How can we help non-drivers to get around?

The proportion of older residents living in Waitaki district is higher than the New Zealand average, and higher still in the small rural communities outside of Oamaru. The World Health Organisation has identified that transport is a key factor in being an age-friendly community, because lack of transport is a barrier to community engagement and can contribute to social isolation.

Two of our Occupational Therapy students, Samantha Haley and Zoe Orme undertook a research project with the Waitaki District Council, studying this issue of transport for older residents. One initiative that is working well is the Waitaki Valley Vehicle Trust. The Trust has three vehicles and 20 volunteers who help people get up and down the valley, where there is no public bus service. The students' recommendations included replicating this in other parts of the district.

Sam and Zoe presented their results to the Positive Ageing Group in Oamaru on 7 November 2019. Their report was positively received. The students also produced a booklet about life without a car, to help meet a need for information about accessibility options.

April 2020

Rehabilitation centre, SDHB

Rehab resources

Two Occupational Therapy students have given a small internal courtyard a new lease of life.

The Rehabilitation Centre at Dunedin Public Hospital has adult patients stay from two weeks to three months during recovery. The facility has a small courtyard that, at the start of this project, was underutilised. Occupational Therapy students Ruby Coers and Kelsey Alexander investigated the potential therapeutic and functional uses of the courtyard, to make it more beneficial for rehabilitation patients.

Kelsey and Ruby produced a design for the area which was approved by the Centre's occupational therapist, Mason Anderson. They then negotiated to secure the resources they needed and set about implementing their design:

  • Sponsorship of $1000 from Mitre 10 was used to buy plants and other resources for the courtyard. Kelsey and Ruby chose low maintenance flax and hebes, and scented herbs like mint and lavender. 
  • With Mason the students tidied up the courtyard themselves and put in the new plants, some in a raised vegetable garden. They also installed solar lights and a birdfeeder, and levelled the pavers for safe access by patients.
  • A local Menz Shed made a picnic table, at which four people could sit in wheelchairs.
  • Lack of secure anchor points for a shade sail meant that they had to use a sun umbrella instead. 
  • The Oamaru Stroke Support Group donated funds for purchase of a new wheelchair accessible barbecue and 3m gazebo.
  • The Southern District Health Board is in the process of having a wheelchair ramp built.

An opening ceremony for the new courtyard was held on 3 September 2020. Mason Anderson says:

"The ceremony brought all community supporters together to acknowledge their kind contributions. Often community groups don't get to see what their support means to patients of the ward. This gave patients an opportunity to say thank you in person. This project placement has been a huge success for both the students and the patients, we look forward to offering project placements to students again."

October 2020

Project Bruce

Project Bruce

Our Occupational Therapy students carried out two initiatives in partnership with a community organisation.

Project Bruce is a community-led development scheme focussed on enhancing Milton and surrounding small communities in South Otago. The organisation is building resilience and resourcefulness through connecting people and groups, and organising workshops, training, activities and events.

Two teams of Occupational Therapy students have been working with Project Bruce. Two students, Christy Barron and Meg Hodgson, supported the fledgling Milton MenzShed, where people can gather to pursue their hobbies, use their skills to make things for the community, and enjoy social interaction at the same time. Christy and Meg helped raise awareness of the MenzShed through media and an open day on 7 November 2019. They also initiated a campaign to gather tools and safety equipment for the MenzShed.

The second group, Rachel Lester & Sinead O’Leary-Burrow, organised Milton Free Day, on Sunday 10 November 2019. The object was to bridge the gap between people and local services, but they also wanted to help meet necessities and connect the community at an inclusive free event. During the Milton Free Day many local businesses provided services for free. Donated baking, books and stationery were also available for free, and a bike fixing station was arranged. The event was a success with over 200 attendees. Feedback indicated they loved the community feel of the event and the opportunities that the event provided.

February 2020

Stroke rehabilitation

Stroke rehabilitation

A collaboration between Information Technology and Occupational Therapy has helped align a technological innovation with implementation to benefit people.

People who have suffered a stroke sometimes find their vision has suffered. Although the eyes themselves are not damaged, how they process what they see is affected. Under Prof Mary Butler's supervision our students have been exploring whether eye-tracking technology can be used as a tool to help with assessment and recovery of vision. Several of our Information Technology students developed a series of games that require players to use their eyes. The games get progressively more demanding on the eyes.

Occupational Therapy student Eliza Booth assessed the games' suitability to be an effective clinical tool for people recovering from vision problems after stroke. She worked with two clients on their vision rehabilitation, teaching them to use the technology and getting their feedback on it. The two clients reported that the games improved their awareness of their vision and their progress in recovery, which gave them hope. They appreciated the opportunity to be active in their recovery with eye exercises that weren't tedious!

There was also a need to consider how the technology could be incorporated into occupational therapy practice. Eliza and Information Technology student Trent Nicholson presented a seminar to about 15 occupational therapists in three departments at Dunedin Public Hospital, to show them how the technology might be used in vision recovery and get their feedback. The technology could be used in the hospital in combination with other therapies, and was seen as a constructive use of patients' time. The feedback from clients and occupational therapists will inform improvement of the games.

August 2020

Disability Information Service

Next steps

Up-to-date advice is available for those living with disability.

The Disability Information Service provides information, advice and support services to Otago people with disability, older people, their families/whanau and the community. For people living with disability, the move from living at home to living independently, and leaving school, are both significant transition points. They often occur around the same time as part of a transition into adulthood.

Two Occupational Therapy students, Sophie McGregor and Grace Vernal, worked with the Disability Information Service on this issue. They started by researching what was involved in transition, and then investigated what options people had and what support services were available to assist them.

Sophie and Grace produced an information booklet that provides information about funding, advocac, social relationships, transport, sport and recreation, cultural services. The booklet includes checklists of things to think about on leaving school and/or leaving home, and will be available in both print and electronic form.

January 2020

Otago Multiple Sclerosis Society

MS Gardeners

Two of our Occupational Therapy students have been helping people with Multiple Sclerosis get into gardening.

The Otago Multiple Sclerosis Society is a non-profit organisation which is a support service for individuals with Multiple Sclerosis and their families. The MS Otago group has around 300 members from Oamaru down to Balclutha and inland to Wanaka. The aim of MS Otago is to empower people with Multiple Sclerosis by providing them with support, education, information and skills to participate actively in the community in ways that are meaningful to them.

After considering the needs of the members of MS Otago and researching options, Occupational Therapy students Zoe Mulcahy and Emma Thomas undertook to improve the connectedness of this community by enabling members to engage in a meaningful occupation of gardening. Supervised by Lecturer Sarah Redfearn, Zoe and Emma facilitated four one-hour workshops to plan with the group on how to revamp an existing raised garden in a sustainable way that can be used by all clients. They educated group members about tools/aids/adaptations that can be utilized to enable members to participate in this meaningful activity. They also made connections with YouthGrow and with the horticultural department at Otago Polytechnic, to partner with MS Otago by providing plants, compost, and knowledge to reestablish the garden, and to ensure sustainability of the garden beyond the students' involvement.

Gardening provides physical and psychological benefits, and social benefits could also be gained through the sharing of knowledge and skills amongst group members by providing a common interest. The aim was to produce a sustainable garden that can be used by members year round. 

January 2019

Green Island Shed

Building community engagement

Occupational therapy students have helped the new Green Island Shed engage local children.

The Green Island Shed has been recently established with the goal of providing a safe environment for people to meet, gain life skills, and undertake community projects to enhance Green Island. Green Island Shed coordinator Pip Weber worked with a team of occupational therapy students to begin to engage children with the Shed.

The two students, Kadison Casey and Grace Macdonald, organised an event for children at the Shed. For this first event eight children attended with their parents. Under supervision the children constructed and decorated birdboxes. The 8- to 12-year-old children enjoyed learning new skills and parents were also enthusiastic about the event. An added bonus is that such events also help people in the community get to know each other and feel a sense of belonging in the community.

The students were careful not to run the event themselves but to support the Shed members to do so, to help ensure such events will continue to be held in future.  The students recommend a social media site and/or email address be set up to help facilitate Shed event communications.

February 2019

Age Concern

Ageing well

Dunedin's older people will benefit from work by our Occupational Therapy students.

Age Concern Otago is an independent charitable organisation dedicated to supporting older people. Age Concern Otago promotes healthy, active and positive ageing for people over 65, celebrating and advancing the wellbeing of Otago’s older people.  To carry out these purposes Age Concern Otago appreciates the support of many volunteers, including teams of our Occupational Therapy students who worked with Age Concern Otago on three different projects during 2018.

A couple of students researched sexual intimacy for older adults, an important topic on which there has been little information readily available. They produced a booklet, "Age and Intimacy", which was tastefully done and provides information for older people about sexual intimacy including sexual health. This booklet will be widely distributed by Age Concern Otago, to rest homes, doctors' surgeries, and the Southern District Health Board.

Another student team investigated why Age Concern Otago's mobility scooter training sessions were not better attended. They explored the barriers to attendance and designed a process for Age Concern Otago to use going forwards, to help ensure this service reached people who would benefit from it.

One long-term goal of Age Concern Otago is for Dunedin to be recognised as an age-friendly city. Some of the students gathered information about what was involved to meet the World Health Organisation criteria, and learned from Hamilton's experience as New Zealand's only age-friendly city currently. They also engaged with the Southern District Health Board's Portfolio Manager for Older Person's Health and won the DHB's support. The students' report set out a process for Age Concern Otago to use to start on the journey of Dunedin becoming an age-friendly city. Because the Dunedin City Council is a key stakeholder, the students went the extra mile by meeting with the Mayor to sell the concept to him.

Debbie George, Operations Manager at Age Concern Otago, was enthusiastic about the students' work for the organisation:

"All three teams were marvellous. Give them all a gold star!"

March 2019

IDEA Services

Meaningful occupation

Occupational Therapy students are helping adults with intellectual disabilities to engage in the community.

IDEA Services supports adults of all ages with intellectual disabilities to live in their own homes and live satisfying lives in the community. Our Occupational Therapy students have partnered with the Dunedin area office of IDEA Services on three different projects to help achieve the second of these goals.

One team of students organised an art exhibition, accompanied by a silent auction. The exhibition, held in the Hub at Otago Polytechnic, provided an opportunity to break down the stigma of intellectual disability by showcasing their artistic talents. The students also created an opportunity for the artists with intellectual disability to build professional relationships by meeting postgraduate students from the Dunedin School of Art to discuss their work. The silent auction resulted in the sale of 23 of the artworks, providing not just a financial benefit for the artists but also a boost in their self-esteem and confidence.

Another team of students arranged a wearable arts fashion show for members of Switch and Artspace but in all the excitement a number of other vocational day bases jumped on board. Switch caters especially for younger adults with intellectual disabilities. The goal was to create an opportunity for community participation through creativity and collaboration. People worked in groups or individually to create their outfits, which one group member then modelled at the fashion show. The project also included collaboration with the fashion school at Otago Polytechnic, with fashion students also designing and modelling their own garments. Twenty-three models with intellectual disabilities modelled to their choice of music, and an audience of more than 100 attended the fashion show.

And the third team organised an inter-service sports day, at the Edgar Centre. The students adapted a range of sports to enable people of all levels of physical ability to participate and enjoy success. Specialised equipment was kindly provided by Halberg Trust and Sport Otago. A total of about 60 people participated in the sports day, from at least two different agencies, providing valuable social and competitive experiences as well as healthy physical activities.

January 2019

Visual impairment screening

Visual impairment screening

Our Information Technology students have been developing a tool to help therapists screen clients for visual impairment.

There is currently no low vision service funded in New Zealand and a consequent risk that visual impairment goes under-diagnosed. For example visual impairment may be one of the consequences of a stroke, or may be a factor contributing to someone having suffered a fall. Mary Butler, a Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy, identified the need for a tool that therapists can use to screen for visual impairment. The tool needed to be self-explanatory and easy for therapists to use. Ideally it would screen for five different types of visual impairment and suggest possible first response interventions that would help clients to improve their functioning. An example of such an intervention could be a review of lighting in their home and advice about improving that.

A group of our Bachelor of Information Technology students accepted the challenge to develop an Android app for this purpose.  In the first year they produced three prototypes which Mary could test with people with low vision and with therapists. The feedback which was received informed further development, and the result is a new and innovative Eyes Right Toolkit.

The Eyes Right Toolkit has been piloted by Occupational Therapy students Aleisha McMurray and Tahlia Hapuku with Year 9 and 10 Kaikorai Valley College students, in collaboration with Retina NZ and the Visual Impairment Charitable Trust Aotearoa (VICTA). Read the Otago Daily Times article here. 122 secondary students were screened, with 21 of them referred to an optometrist. Our students also gave a presentation about common eye problems youth are facing today such as computer vision syndrome, myopia related to screen time, and UV damage. One of the secondary students reported:

“It let me know I could see well, and all about the harmful stuff that can happen to my eyes and how I can protect them.” 

Occupational Therapy student Helen Knight has also taught 300 nurses in Fiji how to use the Eyes Right Toolkit to screen for visual impairments, to help ensure that those who need it are referred to an optometrist. 

October 2018

Flagstaff Community Church

What are kids to do?

Occupational therapy students established a successful after school programme in Halfway Bush.

Community worker Carolyn Sims, then working for the Flagstaff Community Church, identified that the Halfway Bush community needed something for children to do. At that time, in 2007, there was nothing in the area, so parents would have to drive their children somewhere else for organised activities.

Two Occupational Therapy students, Megan Brian and Saffron Kelman, researched the options and suggested an after school programme once a week. They designed the programme, successfully applied for funding to purchase resources, and planned the content for the first couple of months, with a focus on science-based activities and games. They launched the Hilltop Kidz programme by holding lunch time taster sessions at Halfway Bush School.

Carolyn then picked up the programme and ran it with a team of volunteers. Hilltop Kidz became very popular, with most of the schools' pupils crossing the road on Monday afternoons to the church hall. Children were eager to join as soon as they could, when they started school. The activities were educational as well as fun, and the children formed positive bonds with other adults in their community.

Sadly Hilltop Kidz came to an end when Carolyn resigned, as noone else was in a position to pick up the programme leadership role. During its eight years of operation it had significant benefits for the children of Halfway Bush and their families.

August 2017

Visual Impairment Charitable Trust Aotearoa

Meeting lighting needs

A team has been working with visually impaired people to help them choose appropriate lighting.

Many of those who suffer from impaired vision are not aware that appropriate lighting can help them to see better. Mary Butler and a team of occupational therapy students have explored how adult education principles could be used effectively to communicate the science of lighting, in ways that empowered the visually impaired people (VIPs) to meet their own lighting needs at a low cost.

Most of the 17 participants were in their 80s and 90s. All of them were visited by OT students and given a lighting prescription based on the results of standardised assessments. Education about lighting science occurred through focus groups with the VIPs, to increase understanding of how improved lighting could help, and a thematic analysis of learning by participants was carried out. All of the participants made significant changes and several were amazed at the amount of difference that good lighting made to them. 

To complement the project work with study participants, the students provided free lighting needs assessments at a public stall in the Octagon on World Sight Day (16th October 2016). Light meters were also taken to the cafes around the Octagon and a reading was taken of the light at the Eftpos machine. The students also created a film record of their work. The premiere was accompanied by very dynamic discussion with a panel of experts on visual impairment and lighting.

Results of the project are being used to develop and carry out workshops for occupational therapists and several consumer groups, using a basic portable lighting clinic, so that lighting assessments can be carried out more widely. Local lighting shops have been become actively involved and provide discounts and more reliable advice to VIPs.    

Mar 2017

Otago Polytechnic

Coping better with stress

An initiative by two occupational therapy students is helping other students reduce anxiety and stress.

Research shows that anxiety is one of the more common medical diagnoses made in tertiary students. “Anxiety can be managed through sensory modulation strategies,” explains Janine Hunter, one of the students involved.

“Sensory modulation is about making sense of the world by processing and responding to environmental stimuli using all seven senses – touch, smell, sight, hearing, taste, balance and spacial awareness.”

Her collaborator, Natalie Heinz, says high anxiety can have major effects on an individual. “High anxiety levels can impair someone’s ability to regulate their senses, which can in turn result in difficulties engaging in occupations or activities as students.” The pair decided to set up a sensory room as a way of mitigating the effects of anxiety. 

“We believed this would help students with anxiety to self-modulate, allowing them to better engage with their learning and the student community.”

They fitted out Studio 56, located in the Polytechnic carpark on Harbour Terrace, with objects that provide a range of sensory experiences.  As a pilot the room was open to the public from Wednesday 23 August to Friday 25 August 2017, from 9am to 3pm. During the pilot users of the space were asked to provide feedback on Natalie and Janine’s proposal for a permanent sensory space for students at Otago Polytechnic.

The pilot proved very popular, with many people taking the opportunity to use the room, both students and members of the wider public. Feedback was also very positive. As a result Chief Executive Phil Ker agreed that Studio 56 can be set up as a permanent sensory space. The Sensory Space is accessible by appointment with either Danni Holley or Natalie Heinz who are part of our Student Success team.

August 2017