Student innovations benefit patients

Published: May 18, 2008  |  Source: dailynorthwestern.com
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f0na0e84-1Every other weekday morning, a patient named Joe swims in the 12th-floor pool of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Having sustained a C6-C7 spinal cord injury, Joe is unable to use his fingers and has limited movement in his arms and triceps. In order to swim, he needs a special pair of goggles that accommodate the lack of dexterity in his fingers. A one-of-a-kind model, the Tap-Tight Goggles are equipped with an overhead strap and ratchets that allow Joe to adjust the straps easily using the palms of his hands.

Four freshmen enrolled in the Engineering Design and Communication course sequence in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences developed Joe’s goggles. The goggles are just one example of dozens of prototype technologies created by students in partnership with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago each year.

As freshmen, all engineering students are required to take the two-quarter, two-credit sequence, in which they work in teams of four to take on real-world design problems presented to them by individuals, nonprofit organizations, entrepreneurs and companies.

“You treat your instructor like your boss, and you have a client who is interested in your product,” said McCormick freshman Regan Radcliffe, who took part in developing Traba, a trapezoid-shaped adaptive bar that allows people who use wheelchairs to exercise their abdominal muscles independently.

During Fall and Winter Quarters, students work with patients of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, one of the largest rehabilitation hospitals in the nation and the home of the Feinberg School of Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Stroke survivors seek independence, said McCormick sophomore Jared Wendorf, who worked on a team his freshman year developing the Palm Pump Clipper, a one-handed nail clipper for patients who suffer from hemiplegia, a type of paralysis that affects one side of the body.

“In many cases, they can’t use half their body and have to have family members or hospital workers clip their nails,” he said.

Over the past year, Wendorf’s team has been working with Northwestern licensing associate Gary Behler to patent a finished prototype and market it to companies who might be interested in manufacturing the product.

“One of the helpful things that tends to happen with EDC projects is that we have prototypes that can be showed to people,” said Behler, who is currently looking for potential clients to license the one-handed nail clipper prototype. “It gives companies something real to look at.”

Students work with patients and clients in user studies, finding flaws in the product and making corresponding adjustments, which is another valuable aspect to manufacturing companies, Behler said.

“It shows the preferences of the users and that EDC has accommodated them,” he said.

With a patent-pending prototype, Wendorf’s team hopes to cater to a larger target population who can further their independence by using the nail clipper. The finished product actually hit much closer to home for McCormick sophomore Benjamin Mattson, who worked on the device.

“The first one that got finished actually went to my aunt, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and is unable to clip her own fingernails,” Mattson said. “I had no idea it would affect me so directly.”

The course prompts students to create tangible solutions to problems facing people in real-world situations, said McCormick freshman Aditya Kanesa-Thasan, who worked on the Tap-Tight Goggles that Joe uses. After finishing their prototypes, each team is required to write up a detailed report of their project as it would be presented to a client.

Although students are working toward marketing their design, many agree the focus of the class is to be able to make positive changes and meet clients’ needs rather than sell the project.

“It was rewarding; we are still feeling the effects of this project,” Kanesa-Thasan said. “But the bottom line is that it’s actually out there helping people right now.”

By: Tiffany Wong