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Engineering students seek to solve real-world challenges

May 10, 2010

During two engineering design showcases held last week on the Homewood and East Baltimore campuses, many Whiting School students demonstrated that they were aiming for the stars.

Sometimes, literally: One team built mechanical legs to help a future spacecraft land gently on the moon. Other teams targeted the moon figuratively by designing devices that may prevent thousands of premature births or crafting tools that could lead to safer surgical procedures for vast numbers of people.

But at least one team sought a far more down-to-earth goal: finding a way to make life a little easier for one 18-year-old Maryland woman who has cerebral palsy. Three mechanical engineering undergraduates, dubbed Team Grab Bag, devised a motorized mechanism that can lift the young woman’s purse, books and other possessions from an out-of-reach position behind her wheelchair to a resting place in the front of her chair, where she can easily access her belongings.

“I love it!” said Christine Shultz of Annapolis, an Old Mill High School student who has limited mobility. “Before, I had to have someone reach in back of my chair to get my stuff for me. [With this device,] I have more independence. I can do things by myself. Everything works wonderfully.”

Shultz said she plans to use the device, which can lift about 30 pounds, to retrieve her lunch bag, laptop and other items when she continues her studies this fall at a community college.

On May 4, Shultz was a special guest at the Mechanical Engineering Department’s annual Senior Design Day on the Homewood campus. Among the 11 yearlong team projects presented at the event, her wheelchair accessory was awarded the first-place prize.

For the three inventors from Team Grab Bag—Tristan Arbus, Diana Sandy and Adam Sierakowski—this honor and the results of their work were especially rewarding. “It felt great to be able to help Christine and her family,” Arbus said. “We were very proud of what we could do for them.”

Although this particular arrangement of motors, actuators and electronics was customized for Shultz, the students believe it could easily be adapted to other wheelchairs, and they are taking steps toward patenting their design. The project was sponsored by Baltimore-based Volunteers for Medical Engineering.

On the same day that the mechanical engineering designs went on display at the Homewood campus, a dozen biomedical engineering projects were presented during BME’s Student Design Day, held this year on the East Baltimore campus.

“This is probably my favorite day of the year,” Elliot McVeigh, director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, said. He praised the initiative for the way it “cuts across many institutional boundaries” by encouraging team efforts involving students and faculty in the Engineering School and the School of Medicine.

Addressing the attendees, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels said that the program perfectly embodies the ideal of “one university.”

Alfred E. Mann, a highly successful biomedical engineering businessman and philanthropist, was the keynote speaker. He encouraged students to take on technical challenges in an untapped, fast-growing market and produce superior products.

Toward this goal, the university has established the Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design, which aims to help students recognize unmet needs for medical tools and devices, and helps steer them through the development of prototypes and possible commercialization.

Most of the projects presented during last week’s biomedical engineering student design showcase reflected this approach.

The first-place undergraduate presentation award went to the Improved Eye Medication Applicator team, led by Eugene Lee and Jan Lee. Second-place honors went to the Rapid Hypothermia Induction Device team, led by David Huberdeau. Third-place winner was the Stem Cell Therapy for Soft Tissue Defects team, led by Nicholas Gill.

The best-poster award went to the Cortical Concepts team, made up of master’s degree students Evan Luxon, Jason Hsu, Nicolas Martinez and Christopher Komanski.

In the poster competition’s undergraduate division, the first-place winner was the Modified Capsule Endoscopy for Seek-and-Treat Therapy team, led by Erica Jantho and Abhiram Bhashyam. Second place went to the Intelligent Surgical Drill team, led by Leyla Isik. The third-place winner was the Minimally Invasive Spinal Disc Decompression team, led by Alice Wu and James Wang.

Within the Whiting School of Engineering, senior design or capstone projects are a common educational requirement, encouraging students to apply their classroom skills to a hands-on assignment similar to those they may encounter in the working world.

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