Building Better Lives

May 1, 1997

Mark Miester

Linda Landry sensed what her son needed. There was just one problem: It didn't exist. Landry, the mother of a 15-year-old autistic son, was searching for a device that would allow her son to sit in a classroom chair while gently rocking back forth, a calming action for autistic children. Such a device would be a huge boon to keeping him focused on classroom exercises.

To the best of Landry's knowledge, however, no such device existed--until a team of Tulane biomedical engineering students came to the rescue. The students constructed a "motion-enabling chair adapter" for Landry's son, George, to use. The apparatus can be fitted to an ordinary chair, thus helping the youth concentrate on lessons without endangering himself.

George is one of 11 clients of the 1997 Senior Design Project, an annual team research project initiated by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that matches students with disabled persons in the community. This year, for the first time, the project was funded by the Joe W. and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation.

For the past nine years, Ronald Anderson and David Rice, associate professors of biomedical engineering, have overseen the project in which teams of students custom-design devices to meet the needs of individuals suffering from any number of physical or mental disabilities. Over the course of the year-long project, the students meet several times with their clients, determine each client's needs and then set about designing and building a device to meet those needs.

All in all, students are building 11 devices or adaptations to enhance clients' lives, including a mechanism to help a person with spina bifida move laundry and groceries up a steep staircase, a foot-controlled device that will enable a client with cerebral palsy to feed herself, a portable wheelchair ramp for a quadriplegic student, and a dollhouse to help special education students develop hand-eye coordination, visual perception and social interaction.

"If we were going to design a project like one of these to market commercially, it would be at least two years from idea to the market," says Rice. "We get things out in nine months."

Team projects are nothing new for biomedical engineering students. Since its creation in 1977, says Rice, the biomedical engineering department has emphasized the importance of teamwork in achieving goals. In 1988, the NSF inaugurated a project to tap the full potential of engineering student savvy by awarding funds to universities through its Bioengineering and Research to Aid the Disabled (BRAD) program.

Rice and Anderson initiated the first team-design project at Tulane a year later. The two professors forged contacts with the New Orleans Public Schools Special Education Department, Children's Hospital and various disability-support organizations and agencies in order to identify potential clients. While some clients have specific, obvious needs, such as the portable wheelchair ramp, other clients have less obvious needs that often require a series of interviews to determine.

"Originally, we weren't too happy with this project because it was so vague," says Carolyn Reimann (E '97), whose team is designing an automated rocking chair for a 4-year-old autistic child. "We didn't know what we were going to do for him. But then we talked about it with his family and his therapist, and his therapist came up with good ideas to soothe him, to calm him down."

The automated rocking chair also displays a quality that Rice believes is important to the project: ingenuity. Rather than build a rocking chair from scratch, the students used part of their $400 budget to purchase a chair from a local furniture store and another portion to purchase ready-made motors.

"I applaud that," Rice says. "They don't have to design all the details of the mechanics. Some parts are already being mass produced, which makes it cheaper for them and cheaper for any copies of this system. Plus, we get all the safety features that are already built into the design. So, on that basis, it's a better design."

Rice believes strongly that having a relationship with a client is what makes the project so valuable. "I think the students really want to help these people," he says.

On March 15, the Department of Biomedical Engineering hosted its annual senior team-design show that is evaluated by a panel of 10 judges drawn from Tulane and local institutions. Prototypes were tried out in preparation for delivery. All devices become the property of the clients. Rice emphasizes that the project's grade and the device's success are not directly related.

Whether the motion-enabling device turns out to be a success or a failure when it's turned over to her son, Landry is just appreciative that someone is taking the time to help. "I'm not looking for a giant, giant step," Landry concludes, voicing the sentiments of many clients and their families. "I'll take inches. Just to get him into the community and make things a little better for him."

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