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Senior Design Projects Aid People With Disabilities

Faculty-student teams are working with local community agencies to provide novel assistive devices for individuals with physical, sensory, or developmental disabilities.

The initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation, involves fourth- and fifth-year undergraduate student design teams in the industrial, electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering programs working with partners in the Rochester area, including The Arc of Monroe County and Nazareth College’s School of Health and Human Services.  To date, KGCOE students have completed more than 60 projects to aid people with disabilities.

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Supervised by a group of engineering faculty, including Elizabeth DeBartolo, associate professor of mechanical engineering, the design teams work hands-on with individuals with physical challenges in order to design devices intended to facilitate independent transportation, prevent injury, and promote rehabilitation. The projects require students to apply their engineering and innovation skills throughout the process of creating the device, from the analysis of the needs of the consumer to the construction of the prototype.

According to DeBartolo, the senior projects afford the students an experience that they cannot get from a traditional engineering class.

“The opportunity to see the impact of their engineering decisions shows the students the value of their work beyond a financial bottom line,” she says.

Among the variety of projects undertaken, the team has developed an anti-rollback mechanism that allows manual wheelchair users to pause on an incline without danger of rolling backward.  The device is simple and relatively inexpensive, yet no such mechanism is offered for current manual wheelchairs

“The real value of these projects is that students get to experience the entire design process and end up with a device that is going to make a difference in someone’s life,” adds DeBartolo, whose collaborators include Matthew Marshall, Interim Associate Dean and associate professor of industrial and systems engineering, Daniel Phillips, associate professor and department head for biomedical engineering, George Slack, lecturer in electrical engineering, Kate Leipold, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering, and Gary Behm, director of NTID’s Center on Access technology.

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Gait training is a significant part of the rehabilitation process for millions of individuals who have had strokes, lower-limb joint replacements, foot drop, and many other injuries or neurological disorders that result in abnormal gait.  While physical therapy in a clinic or home-based setting is critical for restoring more natural gait patterns, these sessions are often limited to a handful of hours each week.  Between visits, clients are responsible for continuing their exercise regimens independently. For the rehabilitation community, a low-cost gait monitoring device that clients could take home and wear while walking around during regular daily activity could provide daily reinforcement for continuing gait exercises in between clinic visits.

Elizabeth DeBartolo and Kathleen Lamkin-Kennard, both associate professors in mechanical engineering, have worked with undergraduate and graduate students to design, build, and test a novel system to simultaneously track terrain and gait, as well as predict the type of terrain the user is about to traverse.  The system uses low-cost infrared proximity sensors and basic pattern recognition techniques to identify characteristics of both the user’s gait and the upcoming ground from a single set of information.  The research team demonstrated the ability to successfully identify a variety of different terrain types and quantify gait patterns characteristic of a user.  The gait monitor can also be used to monitor changes in gait patterns over time.

In 2013, a multidisciplinary senior design team in KGCOE applied this system to the design of an ankle-foot orthotic that actively positions the user’s foot, and the team was successfully able to create an orthotic that can respond to predicted terrain.  Such a system could promote more natural gait patterns for people who use ankle-foot orthotics.  For this, the team was selected as one of six teams nationwide selected to compete in the ASME Summer Bioengineering Conference Undergraduate Design Competition podium presentation.

The gait and terrain monitor has been presented at two ASME Summer Bioengineering Conferences, and is the subject of a United States patent application.   DeBartolo and Lamkin-Kennard hope that the device will eventually be made commercially available and will be used to improve gait rehabilitation outcomes, both through use as a gait monitor and as part of the control system for active lower-limb orthotics or prosthetics.

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