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LMU Engineers Build Assistive Devices for Disabled Students


chase lioJack is a fifth-grader with dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that limits his motor functions and ability to speak. Like many disabled children who use a wheelchair, Jack is at risk of developing problems with his Achilles tendon, which may shorten from lack of use. Surgery is often required later in life to correct the problem.

Several mechanical engineering students from LMU may have a solution. They’re working on a bicycle attachment for Jack’s gait trainer that would help him move his legs when he gets around, lessening the chance of a shortened Achilles tendon.

The device is part of a yearlong, senior capstone project for students in the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering. Eight mechanical engineers in two teams are designing and building products to help disabled children function more independently. The project will culminate in submitting the designs to the annual Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology of North America’s student competition.

“Both teams have solid designs and a good understanding of the design process,” said Matt Siniawski, mechanical engineering professor and the students’ faculty adviser. “This project lets the students use their education to help benefit someone else’s life, and it opens their eyes to different parts of engineering.”

Each of the two teams is paired with one student from WISH Charter Elementary School, a member of LMU’s Family of Schools. The teams met with the student, the student’s mother, the principal and caretakers to brainstorm ideas for an apparatus that would best suit the student’s needs.

For the team working with Jack, part of the goal is to provide him with a way to move his legs that is fun as well as therapeutic.

“Jack has never ridden a bike before, this is one more step toward living a more normal life” said Tim Burdiak, senior mechanical engineering student and leader of Team Jack. “The bike would promote muscular development in his arms and legs and help prevent his Achilles heel from shrinking.”

The other team is paired with Abbie, a kindergarten student with cerebral palsy. Since the congenital disorder makes fine motor movement difficult, the team came up with a desk unit with a brace and rail that will help Abbie use her iPad more easily in class. Called the iPad Dexterity Enhancement Apparatus, it connects her wrist and forearm to a brace that restricts the range of motion in her hand.

“I.D.E.A. will improve the accuracy and precision of Abbie’s fine motor skills without inhibiting her comfort,” said Amy Clancy, senior mechanical engineering student and leader of Team Abbie. “We hope it improves her confidence and helps her to perform basic functions more easily.”  

Both teams are in the process of building and testing their prototypes. Later this semester, they will build the device and submit their designs to RESNA’s 2013 annual conference, which takes place in June. If the designs are selected, the team will receive an all-expense paid trip to the conference. The winning team will get a cash prize and an invitation to spend three weeks at a rehabilitation research resource center to further develop their design and possibly move it towards commercialization.