Public Release: 

Duke University Students Devise Devices For The Disabled

Duke University

DURHAM, N.C. -- Ten-year-old Daniel Delimata, of Raleigh, can get much more out of a street hockey game now that Duke University engineering students have rigged him up a custom-made goalie "slider."

Daniel's cerebral palsy has severely limited use of his legs, though that hasn't kept him from riding horses, winning an orange belt in karate and playing in wheelchair basketball tournaments.

But his condition did force him to sit on the pavement when acting as goalie in neighborhood street hockey games. That is, until students in a Duke "Devices for the Disabled" course came to the rescue.

The new course, taught by assistant biomedical engineering research professor Laurence Bohs, challenges biomedical engineering seniors and graduate students to apply their knowledge and innovation to a "real world" project addressing unmet needs of the handicapped.

In this case, it put students Brian Feldman, Donna Geddes and Larry Maciolek on a 20-hour-a-week regimen of brainstorming, parts scrounging, building and testing that culminated in a rousing hockey game just before Christmas in the parking lot of Daniel's apartment complex.

A video that day captured a smiling Daniel sitting upright in a special sliding seat that he could push from side to side with his hands and arms. As he pushed, he deftly maneuvered a special goalie's stick the Duke students also cobbled out of a fishing net they bought at a WalMart. The stick was smaller than the adult model he used before, and it also had an easier-to-grasp round handle.

Daniel was delighted -- and remains so -- reported his mom, Janeen. "The slider changed things for him by allowing him to stop the ball better, move faster, get the ball more quickly out of the net, cover more area, and 'look more like a real goalie,'" Mrs. Delimata said in an e-mail interview.

"And the slider will aid him therapeutically, because it will help with coordination and balance, build up his leg muscles, and allow him access to other muscle groups by sitting off the ground instead of squatting,"

"It has also improved his baseball throwing and catching since he can now shift his weight more naturally."

Devices for the Disabled draws on Duke therapists "to suggest and supervise projects that will help the kids they work with,"Bohs said. Last fall's projects were supervised by Robbin Newton, occupational therapy coordinator at Duke's Lenox Baker Children's Hospital, and Jean Hartford-Todd, a child and adolescent life specialist at Duke Hospital.

The students, in turn, find "it's quite a demanding course in terms of time commitment, so they really have to want to do this kind of work," Bohs added. Feldman, of Clifton, Va., and Maciolek, of Hales Corner, Wisc., are both applying to medical school while Geddes, of Potomac, Md., plans to study biomechanics in graduate school.

The base of Daniel's hockey goalie slider was adapted from the heavy track of a professional Olympic rowing machine that Feldman managed to secure for free from Concept II Rowing Co. in Morrisville, Vt.

"Dr. Bohs went to graduate school at Dartmouth with a colleague who ended up marrying the president of Concept II," Feldman recalled. "She set me up with one of the chief design engineers, and he found some scrap parts that they hadn't used because of minor defects."

At the beginning, the students were "just given a sheet of paper that told us what the needs were," said Maciolek. "The first thing we did was brainstorm without knowing what Daniel's limitations were. Then we went to his house and played around with him a little. Then we came back, revised our brainstorming, and decided on the sliding device."

"One thing that made this project special was that it was for Daniel to have fun.," Geddes added. "This was going to be something that was going to help him play with his friends and be a normal kid."

All three said they found the project challenging and rewarding. "I was excited about it because we got the opportunity to go out into the community and do something real for a real patient," noted Feldman.

Meanwhile, a two-student team found themselves working all night in the class lab at Duke's School of Engineering mastering the intricacies of microprocessors to build an electronic teaching game for blind children.

This "spelling and tactile identification game" operates in two "modes," said Varish Goyal, of Atherton, Calif., who worked with fellow student Frank Fernandez, of Miami, Fla.

In the first mode, braille-labelled keys help children identify letters of the alphabet by their feel as the "talking" game "asks" them to spell words. "If they're right, it tells them they're right and goes on to the next word," Goyal said. "If they're wrong, it will tell them they are wrong and then replay the same word again."

The other mode makes a game of finding shapes within a recessed grid. "It will ask the child to find objects," he said. "They feel in each of these holes and they figure out if it is the object they're asked to find."

Another ambitious project by biomedical engineering graduate student Drew Narayan, of Oswego, N.Y., devised a robot wheelchair training car with camera vision and collision sensors that children can control with a joystick.

"It's the kind of control the kids typically have on their powered wheelchairs," Bohs said. "The child looks at a TV monitor and gets the car's view of driving through a maze."

Sensors also "keep track of how many times it runs into things," he said. "Then a microprocessor takes all this information and concocts a score that tells the therapist how well the child is learning to drive. Eventually, therapists can decide whether the child is ready to try a real wheelchair."

Bohs' Devices for the Disabled class expenses are supported by the National Science Foundation as well as the Duke Children's Miracle Network.

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