Sometimes, the benefits of real-world learning become vividly evident in the unexpected. It all started with a mother’s desire to look into her child’s eyes.
Senior mechanical engineering student Kieran Koehler’s work, this summer, in the Scholarship, Creative Arts and Research Projects (SCARP) program had a profound impact on a young boy and his family. The device Koehler helped to refine, helped lift the child’s physical and psychological demeanor.
In addition to expanding his knowledge of engineering, Koehler said it felt rewarding to have a hand in making a difference. The child’s response to the end result moved him so much that his academic focus shifted solidly toward biomedical—the application of engineering and design to healthcare scenarios. Now, he said, his vocational goal after E-town is to use his education and capabilities to help people with challenges become their best selves.
Koehler was on the three-person SCARP team improving upon a vibrating component that had been developed by 2016 graduates Buck Kauffman, David Good and Jake Evans. The prototype had been a hit at Schreiber Pediatric Rehab Center, the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, organization that coordinated with the E-town Engineering Department to bring the project to life.
Kohler and fellow senior mechanical engineering student Nick Wagner, along with senior electrical engineering student Kevin Gorenberg, took over the project this summer. Version 2.0, as the project came to be known, improved upon the original after feedback and data had been collected from therapists working with the child.
The project began in December 2014 when Jaclyn Rhodes contacted the College looking for someone to create a device to assist her son Teddy, a 3-year-old who is challengKoeed by cerebral palsy and a hypoxic brain injury, which cause motor function issues. Rhodes, a former nurse, heard of the concept of therapeutic vibration at a conference she’d attended. She hoped a custom-made mechanism could help improve her son’s muscle control, she said. This, in turn, would help Teddy be more engaged in the world around him.
When Sara Atwood, department chair and Elizabethtown College associate professor of engineering, asked for volunteers, Kauffman, Good and Evans jumped at the chance. After watching a session in which his therapists had to hold Teddy upright while putting him through his stretching routine, they envisioned a hands-free device. The engineering students shared their idea with Teddy’s mother and the Schreiber therapists. All agreed that hands-free would be optimal.
Initially, a child’s car seat was considered but was found to be too large and cumbersome. After some trial and error the team settled on a child’s life vest. Its nylon fabric made it easy to clean, and it could be snugged tightly against Teddy’s body.
The students removed the vest’s stuffing and put a zipper up the back for easy access to the components. Then, Velcro was placed inside so they could move the circuit to different areas on the child’s back.
The circuit, itself, was a bigger challenge.
“We needed something with a certain level of stimulation to get into the muscles in his back and neck,” said Bernie Hershey, an occupational therapist at Schreiber, who was the consultant to the students. The muscles along the spine, she said, are hard to reach. “They are especially small in a child.”
Originally, the students tested various units pulled from vibrating medical devices: a knee sleeve used for arthritis, a weight loss belt, a palm massager. All cycled too high, creating massage vibration more than stimulation. They found the perfect frequency for the circuit was a fixed 72 Hz, or 72 cycles per second. “At the right frequency the muscle fires,” explained Hershey.
In the end, the team created their own battery-operated component to fit in the vest and, one afternoon this past spring, Teddy was suited up, and the switch was flipped. “We were holding our breath the first time,” said Hershey.
Initially, when the four little motors engaged, there was no response. But, when the vibrating unit was adjusted higher on the child’s back, Teddy was suddenly sitting up!
Seeing the impact … there’s nothing like it.” — Kieran Koehler
“A muscle response is a complex phenomenon,” Hershey said. “It has to be just the right amount of sensation. The boys nailed it.”
Kauffman, Good and Evans said their expectations were blown away. “To see him sit on his own was amazing,” said Evans.
Before experiencing the vibration therapy, Teddy, who uses a wheelchair, was perpetually slumped forward. He had no strength to hold himself erect and, therefore, his entire upper body was compressed. The idea was to strengthen his core by stimulating his back and neck muscles, said Hershey. By doing so, he could sit straighter, opening his chest area, helping him breathe and swallow.
After a month of using the vest, about 45 minutes a few times a week Teddy could sit for several minutes and, with each additional session, he showed more and more engagement, lifting his head away from his chest on his own and looking around the room. Though the unit will never cure Teddy’s illness or bring an end to his challenges, it’s helping him to be more mentally and neurologically engaged, said Hershey. Over time the stimulation and usage will help his muscles strengthen, as well.
The clients’ response to the vibrating vest was over-the-top positive. “They couldn’t get enough,” said Hershey. “They were thrilled to death and took so many pictures.”
It was that instant feedback that helped fuel the project, she said. “Engineering can be pretty black and white. Circuits work or they don’t work. This project added color and flavor.”
In many ways it was a lesson in ‘less is more’, said Atwood. “The students realized that a relatively simple but elegant design could have an immediate and substantial impact for another person,” she said.
It helped them understand the power of an engineering degree.
The transition of the project from one team (Evans, Good and Kauffman) to another (Koehler, Wagner and Gorenberg) took place after May graduation.
The first team had applied their design to a specific person’s needs. “The second team,” said Hershey, “designed it to work on different types of vests and in different applications.” The electronic unit also needed to be beefed up. During repeated handling, the therapist said, some of the wires broke off.
Over the summer, the unit was refined to make it “smaller and more robust, more accessible for the therapists,” said Atwood. “It needed to be generic … to work in whatever vest fits the patient. They also moved the switch to a more accessible location.”
Though all members of the original group were mechanical engineers. Team two added electrical engineering student Gorenberg, who took the lead on the circuit board. Due to the specific requirements of the vibration, he became an important part of the team, said Koehler who, along with Wagner, were more involved with the materials, the structure and mechanics of the device.
“When I first heard about this project I was very intrigued by how it was helping not only the patient but the family and the occupational therapists,” said Gorenberg.
By working as a team, each student learned from another and all benefited from interaction with the client, said Atwood. “They all had technical experience,” the professor said but noted that they got real-world experience working directly with a client and responding to feedback. “They got a good understanding of what it’s like to work with production and business.”
The original concept for developing the unit took about one and half years, across three semesters. The refinement, for Version 2.0, took place in a short, condensed time within the full-time SCARP program. “It was all hands on,” said Wagner. And, to his relief, “no homework!”
SCARP, taking place over three to 10 weeks, depending on the project, fulfills one of the five required Signature Learning Experiences at Elizabethtown. The program, created in 2012, supports independent student research under the sponsorship of a faculty mentor. The non-credit experiential learning is designed to enhance professional skills and provide a competitive advantage to participating students who are pursuing career opportunities or graduate studies.
As they took part in SCARP, the students worked a bit outside their comfort zone, dipping into the world of business and regulation by developing a form for the therapists to record data—“something as simple as how long until they needed to change the batteries,” said Atwood of the two AAs that run the unit.
They also came up with a waiver for patients to give permission to be part of the testing. “Having a real client gave them the opportunity to work on a timeline,” Atwood said. And they learned about prototypes and the idea of bringing something like this to the market.
“A lot of our students come (to Elizabethtown) wanting to do good, to have a societal impact,” Atwood said. Projects such as this help them see how they can fulfill that desire within their vocation.
The E-town Engineering Department has worked with Schreiber in the past, with sophomore-level students creating carnival games for fundraisers. This, Atwood said, was far more rigorous. “It’s an elegant solution.”
That was the consensus when the students presented their SCARP research in June. The response was overwhelmingly positive, said Koehler.
Each person involved in the project gained something different. Going in, Koehler was most interested in the product design. “I didn’t just want it to work; I wanted it be esthetically pleasing, as well,” he said. “I wanted to make it less intimidating looking, more appealing to use.”
“What I enjoyed this summer,” said Gorenberg, “was being able to put my creative design in conjunction with my engineering education to help redesign and rework this project to make it better for the client and hopefully more functional for future use and production.”
Wagner’s participation in Version 2.0 helped him solidify his interest in design engineering and working more with the visualization involved. He focused on problem solving, so getting feedback directly from the source was valuable. “I liked the field work,” he said. “I like seeing what worked and what didn’t work.”
For Atwood, that concept is an important component of teaching—getting the engineers out in the field to see the project in action, to hear about challenges and to troubleshoot.
Of course, there is a social impact piece, too.
In a classroom, sitting at a computer, the students might not have seen the effect of their work, Atwood said. Fieldwork is a chance for them to connect all areas … the concept, the work, the person.
“They wouldn’t have seen the emotion.”
The summer team, plus seniors Seth Decker and Billy Kenney, have already begun a new concept for a senior project—creating an attachment for a walker to help the elderly get up and down from a sitting position so they don’t need to reach up high to pull themselves to standing.
The fivesome also will continue working on and refining the vibrating vest, while honing their personal focus.
And, all of this, said Koehler, is about making lives better.
“The joy I got from this project made me want to help people,” he said. “Seeing the impact … there’s nothing like it.”