Penn State engineering students helping child overcome mobility challenges

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Like many children her age, 3-year-old Lucy Reed is eager to explore the world. She’s a magnetic people-person, both friendly and outgoing, and is described as a regular chatterbox in her preschool classes. Lucy enjoys spending time outdoors, traveling with her family, and has perfected the quintessential little sister role when it comes to her relationship with her older brother, Eli.

Her exuberance and positivity seem limitless; however, she is conflicted with one limitation. Lucy, who was born with spina bifida, experiences mobility restrictions when using her current gait assist device. The device, which provides her with the support and assistance needed to walk independently, is designed to operate on smooth terrain only and does not fully accommodate for all of the bumps, obstacles and surface changes a busy 3-year-old encounters on a day-to-day basis. Playing on the playground, walking down the sidewalk, and even crossing doorway thresholds can all be challenging situations for Lucy.

In order to solve these challenges, and to provide their daughter with the best solution possible, the Reed family has chosen to partner with The Learning Factory and senior engineering students during the spring 2016 semester to come up with a device that will meet Lucy’s ever-changing needs.

The hope is that by working with the student team, they will be able to develop a new, rugged wheel package for Lucy’s mobility device that will provide her with optimal independence and free range of motion — just in time for her to enjoy an active summer.

Lucy was diagnosed with spina bifida during a routine ultrasound at approximately 20 weeks gestation.

Spina bifida is a condition in which the spinal column does not fully close during development. It is the most common neural tube defect in the United States and affects approximately 1,500 babies born in the country each year. The effects of spina bifdia can range from mild to severe and may present varying degrees of physical and cognitive disability.

In Lucy’s scenario, the original prognosis of her condition was somewhat negative. After undergoing extensive testing at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, it was determined that the Reeds were not ideal candidates for fetal surgery to close the gap in Lucy’s spine — a cutting-edge surgical technique in which a fetus is fully delivered, operated on and placed back inside the womb until it reaches full term. Instead, the Reeds were advised to go the traditional route and wait until Lucy’s delivery to begin her care.

However, at 35 weeks gestation concerns began to arise about an increasing presence of hydrocephalus, which is a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. Lucy was born five weeks early and in just five short days underwent two major surgeries. The first surgery closed the gap in her spine and the second placed a shunt in her brain, which eliminated excess fluid. She spent 23 days in the NICU during her recovery, and at that time, a flurry of questions began to arise, including: What would be the outcome of her future development and would she ever be able to walk on her own?

Fortunately, she had a very proactive support system on her side. Her parents, Adam and Monica Reed, both Penn State employees and graduates of the Penn State architectural engineering program, remained vigilant in their daughter’s care, ensuring that she received the best interventions possible.

“During the early intervention period, Lucy would have as many as six therapy sessions a week,” said Monica. “She worked with an occupational therapist, speech therapist, and a physical therapist multiple times throughout the week, which was both tremendous and atypical. She was very [developmentally] delayed at that time and her therapists felt it was both helpful and necessary.”

The work and persistence paid off. Now at 3 years old, Lucy is enrolled in mainstream preschool classes at the Child Care Center at Hort Woods; she also attends the Easter Seals Child Development Center part time. While at Easter Seals she receives physical and occupational therapy through the Intermediate Unit. Lucy has typical cognitive function for a child her age, and she is able to walk with the support of a Rifton Pacer Gait Trainer.

The gait trainer gives Lucy the freedom and independence to explore the world around her. She is able to be mobile in her preschool classes, socialize with other children, and play outdoors. One issue that she experiences, however, is difficulty transitioning between two contrasting surfaces. Moving between varying elevations and surface textures — such as concrete to grass — can be challenging. 

“The problem with Lucy’s mobility device is in the wheel design,” said Adam. “The wheels are small and rigid and made from a hard material. They get stuck easily on tiny bumps, rocks and even when she comes through doorways. This causes Lucy to lose her balance and sometimes fall. It also prevents her from moving freely. It is a challenge for her to go outside on grass, gravel paths, and other uneven surfaces.”

This particular challenge led to the Reeds to investigate new solutions, and based on a suggestion from Lucy’s physical therapist, ultimately reach out to the Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory at Penn State.

The Learning Factory aims to bring the real world into the classroom by providing engineering students with practical hands-on experience through industry-sponsored and client-based capstone design projects. Many engineering students are required to complete a capstone project prior to graduation.

Learning Factory administrators assessed the situation and assigned a team of engineering students to the project, with a goal of developing a new wheel package for Lucy’s Rifton Pacer Gait Trainer. Requirements for the project were that the new wheels must be rugged, able to provide stability and assist Lucy on a variety of terrains. 

“I think it’s absolutely amazing that we got the chance to meet Lucy and see what she is going through,” said Georgia Konzel, a biomedical engineering senior.  “As we’re working on the project she is always in the back of our minds, motivating us to make the best product possible. We know it’s going to benefit her and make getting over these obstacles easier.”

Other students involved with the project are biomedical engineering seniors Joe Roberto, Julia Marger and Kristen Hagenah, and mechanical and nuclear engineering senior Jordan Krick.

The team members are happy that they are able to lend their skills to help Lucy, and they are also thankful to be working with the Reeds, who not only know their daughter better than anyone, but also posses a wealth of engineering experience that can be applied to the solution.

“Working with Adam and Monica is tremendous,” said Hagenah. “They are always very willing to meet with us and discuss our specific problems. Their engineering backgrounds also allow them to contribute to the solution. I don’t think we would have had the same type of personal and mentoring relationship with any other sponsor.”

The first prototype for Lucy’s new wheel set will be completed later this month and will be fabricated from both existing and custom-manufactured parts. Aside from materials challenges, the group was also charged with investigating a number of force calculations to ensure the wheels were the right size, tread type and that they will provide Lucy with enough power to overcome the obstacles she encounters.

The final prototype is scheduled to be completed before the culmination of the spring semester, and if all goes as planned, should help Lucy fulfill a number of new adventures this summer.

All of the students agree that their involvement in the project will provide vital experience as they move into professional careers, but more importantly, that they are making an impact in the present.

“The goal is that we will be able to see Lucy get around with ease,” said Marger. “That would make all of us very happy. It is our ultimate objective and she absolutely deserves it after all she’s been through in her short life.”

Last Updated April 11, 2016