BME Seniors Expand Design Skill, Open Doors for People with Disabilities

January 1, 2006

Another crop of biomedical engineering seniors at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering expanded their design skills while helping individuals with physical and developmental disabilities last semester. Their design projects -- the culmination of the elective capstone course BME 260: Devices for People with Disabilities -- ranged from a guitar strummer for a teenager with limited use of his right side to a tailored exercise machine for a woman with cerebral palsy.

The undergraduates showed off their designs and prototypes at a poster session in the Fitzpatrick Center Atrium on Dec. 13. The products of other students’ hard work in design courses aimed at medical instruments and biotechnology were also on display (see sidebar).

Each semester, a full range of miracles happen,” said assistant research professor of biomedical engineering Larry Bohs, who teaches the course each fall. “Another group of students took the course really seriously, got to know their clients and worked on prototypes until they got it right.”

At the outset of the course, three-member student groups chose their project from among a dozen different and challenging design problems faced by real people. Bohs said the projects emerge out of collaborations -- many of them longstanding -- between the Pratt School and individual community members and organizations, such as Durham Public Schools.

“We look for projects that are simple enough to complete in a semester, but challenging enough to challenge students for a semester,” Bohs said.

While students can incorporate preexisting items into their tailored designs, their final products cannot represent commercially available goods, he added. Each group is allotted $500 to complete their tasks.

D.C. area native Rahul Kak’s group chose to design and build a reach assist device for a little boy with TAR syndrome, a condition characterized by skeletal abnormalities including the absence of portions of both arms.

“This project was our first choice because it had perhaps the broadest applications,” Kak said. “It could be made for anybody who needs help reaching, those in a wheelchair, for example. It also had huge potential to improve client independence -- a big life impact.”

After spending time in the boy’s home and elementary school, the team, which also included Billy Hwang, from Potomac, Md., and Brian Yeh, from Edison, N.J., built the reaching device onto a traditional snare drum carrier, which could easily be supported by the torso. The device includes a retractable arm with the capability for physical manipulation of items.

The project marks the fifth built by BME 260 students for this boy, Bohs said. Earlier devices built for him include a shoulder-steered tricycle, a rotational workstation, a custom scooter, and an adapted swing, Bohs said.

Jonathan Lee, from San Jose, Calif., and his student group built a foot-powered guitar strummer. The strummer is operated using a pedal device that can be mounted on any acoustic guitar.

“The final product was probably our tenth idea of how to do this,” Lee said. “The biggest challenge was to make a sound like a strum that actually sounded good.”

The team, including Jason Leung, from Hong Kong, and Matt Topel, from Southlake, Texas, built the device for a 17-year-old boy who lost much of the use of his right side at the age of 3 after having a stroke. The strummer might now make it possible for him to learn to play the guitar, a hobby he has wanted to take up for years, the students said.

Kim Png, from Singapore, collaborated on a project with the potential to make life more fun for children who live at Hilltop Home, a residential facility for kids with disabilities who she said range in age from 16 months to 14 years. Png’s team built and installed a custom-made outdoor play/activity center.

Painted in primary colors, the center includes a mounted bar from which toys meant to stimulate different senses – visual, auditory and tactile – hang at a level that makes it easy for the kids to interact.

“The kids had difficulty playing on their own before because of their developmental and physical limitations,” she said. For example, many of the kids use wheelchairs, making it difficult to see and pick up toys. Png said the best part of the course was seeing their design come to fruition.

“At first, the kids were unsure what to do, but then they started to touch and play,” she said. “When I saw them smile, it was really rewarding.” Png worked with Jacquie Anderson, from Carthage, Mo., and Ying Min Wang, from Singapore.

Dot Lowell, from Raleigh, along with Miami native Christian Agudelo and Troy Swimmer, from Escondido, Calif., developed a “steady stepper” exercise machine for an older woman with cerebral palsy. The woman, who normally relies on a wheelchair, wanted a mechanism for exercising her lower body. In particular, she wished for an apparatus that would allow her to exercise while standing, with the end goal to help preserve bone density.

Their hard work paid off. “We formed a strong relationship,” she said. “She loves the stepper. She managed 60 steps right off and is going to keep us posted on her progress.”

Other projects included a personal play platform for a 9-year-old with cerebral palsy and universal bumpers for soccer played with powered wheelchairs. The student projects are made possible with support from the National Science Foundation.