ost of the state’s college and university students are off and away now, leaving behind a swath of graduation parties and warm feelings of accomplishment. But students of a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences program at North Carolina State University left behind much more. Through designing and building biomedical projects for physically challenged people, graduates of the College’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) Department have left a legacy of caring.
For example, Kevin Bailey of Raleigh, himself a recent University of North Carolina graduate, last year packed his drum set and bags and headed for New York City, determined to follow his dream: to become a player in the Big Apple’s musical world.
But as the late John Lennon observed, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Bailey found a job as a roofer to finance his intended rise to fame, but his music career took a major hit when he fell from a roof and was paralyzed from the waist down.
It seemed as if Bailey were at the end of the line, yet some seemingly dead-end roads turn out to be only unplanned detours.
Back home in Raleigh, Bailey took his problem to the College’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department.
Last fall, senior design student Shannon Ward of Holly Springs, now a recent graduate, decided to work with Bailey.
“He maintains a positive attitude and the use of his upper body, but misses playing his drums more than any other activity,” Ward says.
After their first meeting, she says, “I saw what the need was. It definitely was a challenge. An immediate answer didn’t pop out. I talked with my engineering advisers, Dr. Larry Stikeleather and Dr. Roger Rohrbach, worked with some engineering student friends of mine who play drums, and it all slowly came together. It definitely was a community effort.”
The effort coalesced a bit faster because Bailey had definite ideas about what he wanted from the engineering classes.
“He knew that he wanted to play bass drum with his elbows,” says Ward. “He said he’d be listening to his car radio and realized he could do that; he already was ‘playing’ drums with his elbows.” So Ward built a prototype that allowed Bailey to play bass drum using a pedal under each of his elbows.
While one of Bailey's two elbow pedals plays the bass drum, the other is for the high-hat (cymbals). Bailey wanted to try bite-activation for the cymbals, but, says Ward, "We had to go a different route with the high-hat. Bite activation wouldn't work, so I attached a drop clutch [also elbow-activated] to the high-hat, so it's either closed or open.
“We got the bass drum fine, and now he wants to get a double beat. We’re working so he can get it without hitting the high-hat too hard,” Ward says.
Ward, who majored in biological engineering with a biomedical concentration, begins her career this summer as a product development engineer with Cordis Corp., a Johnson and Johnson company in South Florida.
While some neophyte inventors are inspired, neither project ideas nor solutions materialize from outer space. Biological and agricultural engineering students discuss their proposed work on the first day of classes, looking over a projects list provided by Rohrbach and Dr. Gerald Baughman, senior design course instructors. And Dr. Susan Blanchard, BAE associate professor, coordinates pre-approved biomedical projects eligible for National Science Foundation funding.
After deciding on a project, some students work with individuals; others with one of several centers for disabled children. In Raleigh those include the Tammy Lynn Center, the Charlie Gaddy Center and the Lucy Daniels Center.
For the Tammy Lynn Center, Nicole Baker of Belvidere, a recent graduate who studied biomedical engineering, and her design partner, Lindsay Ford of Lenoir, who also recently graduated, developed what they call an “advancement chair.” The chair, which resembles a baby’s booster seat, includes adjustable and removable components to teach disabled children how to sit properly.
“As the child learns to support body weight, components can be adjusted or removed to help further,” Baker says. “It features adjustable and removable belts for lower leg, knee, pelvis and trunk. The seat height and depth, and the arm, back and headrest heights also are adjustable.”
As do most engineers, Baker and Ford started with sketches and computerized drawings. Then they built a cardboard prototype, useful in improving their design. Throughout the project, they counseled with their departmental consultants, Rohrbach and Dr. Carolyn Sommerich, industrial engineering professor.
But they gained much more than classroom hours from their assignment. “We’ve gained experience as to how the design process functions outside the classroom,” says Baker.
Recent graduates Mikki Deitz of Sylva and her design partner, Lanita McClelland of Chapel Hill, worked on a dynamic stander for the Charlie Gaddy Center. “It’s similar to a wheelchair except the child stands instead of sits, which allows the child to be mobile and upright and to meet friends face-to-face,” says Deitz.
“Spina bifida,” she explains, “is an abnormality of the spinal cord’s development, causing loss of function of the lower extremities. The stander therefore provides trunk and leg support for better stability so the user can learn to support his or her own body weight.”
To accommodate a disabled child’s leg discrepancies Deitz and McClelland, working with Dr. Peter Mente and Dr. Gerald Baughman, biological and agricultural engineering professors, built a new component, which sits on an adjustable, split platform that is safely mounted on the original pieces.
“It features adjustable, removable lateral supports to help the child be more comfortable and stable,” Deitz says.
Also noteworthy are several other recent graduates and their projects:
Working with the Lucy Daniels Center, Meredith Watson of Smith-field designed and developed a table game with two miniature cranes, each of which requires two children to work together to operate it.
“Using levers and cranks to manipulate the crane and pick up the balls to drop them on the gameboard, the children must communicate with each other to discuss how and where to move the crane, hopefully helping them develop vital communication skills they will need all their lives,” says Watson.
Tony Wu of Goldsboro designed a special bicycle for a Cary girl who has Smith-Magenis syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by developmental delays, mental retardation, low muscle tone and behavioral and sleep problems. Wu’s bicycle project, funded by the National Science Foundation, gives the girl a way to exercise and a chance to be outdoors more. It also should increase interaction between the girl and her family, Wu says.
Aaron Zickefoose of Raleigh developed an electronically powered variation of a conventional toy on which kids sit and spin themselves around by holding onto and twisting a stationary spool or handle in the middle of a wheel. His project allows a child to just gently press the handle to start the ride; releasing the handle shuts off the device.
Susan Srour of Clemmons and Renee Bradley of Raleigh designed a grasper to help Srour’s Israeli uncle, a quadriplegic, to perform daily activities by himself, such as eating and brushing his hair.
Jason Carmine of Raleigh developed an electric umbrella opener which should be helpful for people with arthritis.
Jen Cutalo of Raleigh and Aaditya Devkota of Cary used a National Science Foundation grant to develop a laptop mount for a wheelchair-bound 10-year-old. The mount holds the laptop securely in place, gives the young man a working surface and doesn’t protrude from his wheelchair, thus protecting his household surroundings.
Wendy Daughtry of Clinton, working jointly with doctoral student Mike Burchell of Raleigh, developed a tipping bucket flow-rate measurer based on the design of small tipping bucket rain gauges, but on a much larger scale. She expects the device to be popular among field engineers who previously had to manufacture their own, non-standardized measurers.
Jennifer Druga of High Springs, Fla., and Neel Patel of Rocky Mount worked to assist a boy, 5, who has spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy and was confined to the upper level of his family’s split-level home.
Their wheelchair lift, driven by a motor and threaded rods, will be placed on the home’s lower level, and will be able to rise 3 feet to the dining room area, allowing the boy to navigate the lower level, where he can play games and interact more with his family.
“Our students are tops in the material world of engineering design,” says Dr. James Young, department head. “But you can’t beat that other element they bring to their assignments: the desire to help others.”