URI Student Engineers think big, improve mobility for children with disabilities

By Angela Marshall – December 9, 2015

11222800_1810827539144071_7351842285088967103_nCollaboration can jumpstart a great idea and give it real traction. In order to give mobility to their young patients with disabilities, students from the University of Rhode Island Department of Physical Therapy met with counterparts from the College of Engineering. Together, they’re making cars that make children’s — and parents’ — mobility dreams come true.

Sandra Maliangos and Coral Hines, physical therapy students, approached College of Engineering professor Ying Sun with a problem. Their Leadership Project, called Lil’ Rhody Riders hit a snag. They wanted to provide children with disabilities ride-on vehicles, similar to those provided to children through a University of Delaware program called Go Baby Go. They raised $1,200 via crowdsourcing with an intent to modify electric ride-on cars for six mobility impaired kids. But, they lacked the engineering experience.

Sun put them together with a team from the Biomedical Capstone program. Led by Cara Nunez, an electrical engineering graduate student, the team is using their skills to turn a base model toy car into vehicles that will give these kids freedom to play.

Each child’s needs are different, said Katie Brown, one of the two undergraduate engineers on the project. She notes that each car needs to be modified to individual specifications, making each one of the six cars a unique challenge.

Patients’ ages range from 17 months to six years old and some children have more physical control or therapy needs.

“The kids that we’re working with have a lot of extra muscular movements that they can’t really control,” says Zach Campo, another undergraduate engineer. Since foot pedals are out, they’re working with a range of switches to make the cars go. Options include a push button, a finger switch and a headrest that incorporates physical therapy exercises by encouraging the child to push back with their head to make themselves go forward. Some children will have joysticks to allow them to turn. But, an added safety feature provides a unique twist over other, similar projects elsewhere.

To make the project their own, they are adding distance sensors as an optional safety feature.

Campo explained, “We’re going to 3D print a little case for them so that the kids can’t interfere with [the sensors] and implant them on the front of the car so that they can sense how far the car is from other objects.”

Brown added, “When the car gets close to the wall, it will shut off the motor.”

This feature will appear on some, but not all of the cars they will produce. Brown said, “Some parents want it and some parents don’t.”

In keeping with the Capstone Project rules, the engineers have been maintaining a tight budget. The cars, when finished will cost about $200 per build at no cost to the patients’ families.

Both Brown and Campo agreed that the best part of the project was the reward of seeing these children get excited about their new cars. “I like to see the impact of my work on a person… If I could turn that into a career that would be awesome,” said Campo.

The first two cars are slated to drive off with their families December 6 and additional families have come forward requesting rides of their own. For those interested in donating funds or helping to connect families with the Lil’ Rhody Riders program see their Facebook page. More information will be forthcoming as the program progresses.

What is Capstone?

Meant to be the final building block in educating future engineers, the Capstone Design Program at University of Rhode Island (URI) presents students with real-world engineering problems. Capstones are part of any accredited engineering program, but part of what makes URI’s take so unique is the collaborations that take place with business, industry, government and community contacts. Capstone projects broaden a student’s understanding of engineering needs across a spectrum of sponsors that they may not already have contact with.

The Accreditation Board of Engineering Technology, ABET, has established requirements for Capstone programs for accredited engineering programs, according to Bahram Nassersharif, PhD, professor and head of URI’s Mechanical Engineering’s Capstone Design Program. ABET, Nassersharif says, “added this element of some kind of experience towards the end of the four year engineering degree program so that all engineering students could achieve a certain set of capabilities with respect to engineering design.” Capstone, he notes provides students with the experience in the truly creative aspect of engineering — designing solutions — in a team setting, which better prepares them for what industry needs.

The two-semester design project puts these small student teams through the process from defining a problem and conceiving a solution through building and testing a concept. Each engineering specialty at URI has it’s own variation on how the course projects are defined, however collaboration and teamwork remain a significant component across the areas of study.

For some capstone programs, like the Biomedical Engineering Design Program, led by Ying Sun, PhD, real world problems come not from industry but from physicians, physical therapists, veterinarians, nurses and others in the biomedical field, some with a global perspective. As opposed to mechanical engineering, whose contacts have included Hasbro, Stanley tools, and General Dynamics, Biomedical takes a different approach. “We reach out to the community about their needs,” Sun says about projects currently spanning a device to help teach Chinese medicine techniques in a veterinary setting, a project to enhance the lives of disabled children through increased mobilities, and a protective device for coal stoves in Kenya to reduce burns among children there.

No matter which discipline, however, URI College of Engineering encourages students to look at real problems and think of real solutions.