Education, Health Care, and Technology

College students engineer mobility device for 16-month-old girl

March 3, 2015
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College students develop play-and-mobility device for 16-month-old
GVSU students, from left, Tyler Kramer, engineering, Lauren Webster, physical therapy, Kevin Yahne, engineering, Lyndsay Hammond, physical therapy, and mother Holly Gritter watch Gritter’s daughter, Lylah, in the Play and Mobility Device. Courtesy GVSU

College students have applied their engineering and physical therapy skills to create a device that gives a 16-month-old girl a chance at independent mobility.

Grand Valley State University said last month that a group of engineering and physical therapy students participated in a semester-long project to develop an assistive-technology prototype known as the Play and Mobility Device for the young girl who has a genetic disease impacting motor nerve cells.

Assistive technology

The Play and Mobility Device was designed to give Lylah Gritter, who has type I spinal muscular atrophy, or SPA, the ability to move independently, using a modified joystick attached to a device she can sit in.

The current prototype includes a sensitive joystick, dual controls for a caretaker to override the tool’s functions and a long-lasting battery.

John Farris, professor of engineering at GVSU, said a group of four junior engineering students spent the fall semester developing a working prototype for the 16-month-old.

“We tackled it in a junior product development design class,” Farris said. “Lylah has restricted movement, and right now, she is using a modified joystick, which needs to be very sensitive. They had to have dual controls on it, so Lylah has control, and there is another caretaker control, which allows for override in case she was getting near something dangerous.”

The semester-long project was prompted by Lisa Kenyon, associate professor of physical therapy at GVSU, who asked the Engineering department if a device could be created for Lylah to gain the ability for self-movement, according to Farris.

“She doesn’t have the ability to move around on her own,” Farris said. “It denies her the ability to explore her environment and that really sets back her cognitive development.”

Based on how well the Lylah can use and control the joystick-powered device, Kenyon said it can help her become qualified to have a power wheelchair, which can cost at least $10,000.

“Lylah is very verbal and smart, but has no ability to move herself,” Kenyon said.

Engineering “context”

The engineering students behind the assistive technology — Brandon Johnson, Kevin Yahne, Tyler Kramer and Dustin Martin — were able to work with a pair of GVSU doctorate of physical therapy students, Lauren Webster and Lyndsay Hammond, and Lylah’s family.

With the exposure to the physical therapy students’ perspective and the needs of the family, Farris said it was an eye opener for the students to learn to associate technical details with human development capabilities.

“It is a real culture shock,” Farris said. “Engineers will say how many miles per hour, and there is no context for that. It was a great engineering experience for me and the students, but it is also an experience in applying engineering to human beings, in a new context.”

Federal grant for more projects

Funding for roughly $1,000 in raw materials, such as joysticks, motors and steel, was allocated from a $180,000 National Science Foundation grant Farris and a colleague received.

The five-year grant is meant to engage students and faculty members in building specialized assistive-technology devices for people with disabilities.

“We have a team of students this semester who are working on an arm to support Lylah’s arm, so it takes very little effort for her to move the joystick,” Farris said. “The first application of that arm will be for the Play and Mobility Device.”

As part of the larger National Science Foundation grant, Farris said there are additional projects taking place not only in the product area, but mechanical engineering as well to develop assistive devices.

“Right now, we have another team building a similar device for another child, but will be designed to go outside,” Farris said. “It is always great to see students apply what they learn, what they have already learned, to benefit somebody else. We are always trying to tell them that engineering is important and can make peoples’ lives better.”

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