Engineering for the world of the disabled

Most Penn State College of Engineering students taking Mechanical Engineering 440W expect their senior design capstone project to change their perspective on innovation and product development. After all, the class gives students the chance to develop devices for Fortune 500 companies and big government entities, such as the U.S. Navy.

For one group of students, the class actually changed how they view the world of the disabled.

Mary Frecker, professor of mechanical engineering, said the class last year partnered with the Central Pennsylvania Spinal Cord Injury Support Group to create working prototypes of devices to help the disabled. Ideas ranged from a wheelchair seat-boosting device to a motorized glove to a leg-stretching device to reduce spasms in people who are quadriplegic.

Members of the class traveled to Hershey and met with Keith Parsons, a member of the Central Pennsylvania Spinal Cord Injury Support Group, which is officially recognized by the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s Association of Faculty and Friends. The group kept Parsons updated with weekly reports. He, in turn, offered feedback to the team.

Frecker said that students relish the opportunity to take on real-world projects. “There are definitely a lot of students who enjoy working on a project with a humanitarian angle to it,” she added.

The leg-stretcher project won first place in the Lockheed Martin Best Design Award, judged by a panel of industry experts, at the College of Engineering’s Design Showcase.

Everett Hills, medical director of the Penn State Hershey Rehabilitation Hospital, said one of the more satisfying outcomes of the project is that student engineers uncover a new appreciation and respect for the human body’s capabilities and for the challenges that face people with disabilities.

“Based on their interactions with our disabled population, they encountered tasks that an able-bodied person would probably never think about,” said Hills, who serves as the medical adviser for the Central Pennsylvania Spinal Cord Injury Support Group. “The simple things -- such as sitting up in a chair or stretching one’s legs, are often taken for granted and don’t require the help of another person.”

This article is from the spring issue of Penn State Outreach magazine.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010