Focus and Health Care

Mobility for Madison

October 1, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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When Grand Valley State University engineering students Phil DeJonge and Jake Hall enrolled in a product design class last fall, they didn’t know they would be adding mobility to the life of 2-year-old Madison Riemersma. She has spina bifida, a spinal condition that causes loss of function and sensation in the lower half of the body.

Lisa Kenyon, assistant professor of physical therapy, had been working with Madison and her family and asked students in GVSU’s School of Engineering to help.

“While Madison was making great progress on her walker, we wanted to find a way for her to play outside with her siblings,” said Kenyon, who is also a physical therapist for Mary Free Bed.

DeJonge and Hall found a Barbie Jeep on Craigslist and persuaded the owner to donate it to GVSU for a good cause — their plan being to redesign it so that Madison would be able to drive around the lawn in it. The idea became their class project.

Airway Oxygen, a West Michigan company, donated a joystick that allows Madison to drive the pink jeep. The two students also designed and installed a remote control device so that Madison’s parents could override her control when necessary and drive her back to them.

DeJonge and Hall redesigned the steering mechanicals and mounted a 12-volt electric battery in the jeep. They involved Madison in several tests of the jeep when finalizing the installation of cushioning and seat belts to provide her with maximum support and safety.

Developing the control systems was the most difficult, said Hall, who is studying biomedical engineering. “We programmed the car to have gradual speeds, similar to a regular vehicle,” he said. “When Madison first drove the Jeep, she had a hard time, but after a while she got the hang of it.”

“One reason Phil and I enjoyed this project so much was because we really were able to effectively change someone’s life in a positive manner,” said Hall.

GVSU began offering a biomedical engineering minor for the engineering undergrad degree programs in 2009 and an MSE in biomedical engineering in 2010, according to Samhita Rhodes, an associate professor and chair of the biomedical engineering program.

Rhodes is an electrical engineer who earned a master’s and Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the University of Marquette in Milwaukee, which has one of the top programs in the U.S. She was hired at GVSU in 2007 to develop a biomed engineering program there.

“One of the things that was evident was that Michigan was putting a lot of money into developing health care technologies on the (Michigan Street) Hill, and so we wanted to be proactive in offering a biomedical engineering program,” said Rhodes.

She said early discussions with the university’s partners in the West Michigan business sector about a bachelor’s degree indicated they preferred engineers with classical engineering training, “but they also wanted them to know something about design and developing devices and instruments for working with the human body.”

Hence, the decision was made to make biomedical engineering a minor for the undergrad degree in mechanical, electrical, product design and computer engineering.

Later, the National Science Foundation provided a grant to GVSU to establish the full master’s-level degree in biomedical engineering.

Engineering devices for use with the human body is ‘a very specific design ethos because the human body is so different. One size does not fit all,” said Rhodes, and yet the products have to be designed for maximum applicability.

The biomedical engineering programs have only been underway a couple of years at GVSU “but we’ve already got some very excellent students,” said Rhodes. Forty-one students are now enrolled in an engineering program with the biomedical minor, and the first cohort of six students graduated in April with the master’s degrees in biomedical engineering. Another 18 are enrolled now in the program.

Biomedical engineering products range “all the way from sophisticated X-ray CT scanners down to a small Barbie Jeep that could help one child with spina bifida. It spans the gamut,” said Rhodes.

At GVSU, engineering is the basis for the biomedical engineering program, with a math background and design-and-build emphasis, said Rhodes.

“West Michigan is a very hands-on place. They’re very good at manufacturing and design and build,” she said, adding that research is on the increase here but the focus in business is still “more toward manufacturing and production.”

Jake Hall would agree. The specialized miniature Jeep he and DeJonge successfully redesigned inspired the two to start making plans for their own company, which they are going to call Capable Solutions. It will focus on devices that help make people with disabilities more capable of doing things on their own.

A native of Grandville, Hall, 23, will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in product design and manufacturing engineering at the end of 2013. As a kid, he loved playing with Legos, K’Nex and Erector Sets — “building things and tearing things down to see how they worked.”

Hall said the GVSU School of Engineering “has done some other fantastic stuff” to help individuals with disabilities. One was a powered wheelchair designed as a trainer for children who will begin using a powered wheelchair in the near future. The trainer model had to incorporate complicated safety mechanisms that a normal powered wheelchair would not have.

Other students in his class designed a remote-controlled lawnmower for a quadriplegic man who could only activate the controls by puffing air in a straw.

Hall also has done some work on similar engineering projects for businesses, including Magnum Engineering, a firm founded by two recent grads of the GVSU School of Engineering. He has worked for Inrad Medical in Kentwood, which designs and manufactures biopsy devices. Hall said he also is working this semester with Motorola and previously worked on class projects involving Herman Miller, American Seating and Lacks Corp.

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