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Freshman designs solve real-world problems

Crossing a street. Entering a room. For many people, they're "no-brainer" activities; for people with Parkinson's disease, they can be "no-movement" situations. A Parkinson's patient might freeze in the middle of the street-or in a doorway en route to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Because Parkinson's attacks the area of the brain that controls muscle coordination, try as they might, patients can't resume walking without assistance.

Enter "Antifreeze." For its Introduction to Engineering (EPD 160) design project, the 13-student group-nicknamed Antifreeze-developed a device that enables Parkinson's patients to "unfreeze" themselves.

Head rest memory foam

To maximize the head cradle's effectiveness, students padded it with "memory foam" and used Velcro to attach the switch through which their client communicates via computer. (11K JPG)

The constraints: The solution must be lightweight, safe, comfortable, convenient, easy to operate, inconspicuous, versatile, durable and cost-effective to the tune of less than $100.

Through research, group members discovered that what often helps Parkinson's patients resume walking is having to step over an obstacle. One company already manufactures a "portable obstacle"-a step-over wand attached to the bottom of a walking cane. Its cost is about $40, but the wand doesn't retract and is difficult to see at night. At the other end of the cost spectrum, the group found a $12,000 companion dog trained to unfreeze its owner by touching his or her foot.

EPD 160 project group

"Switcheroos," a group of freshmen engineering design students, invented a head cradle so a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy has constant access to his computer-communication switch while he's sleeping. (22K JPG)

Exploring further, the group learned that Parkinson's patients respond well to "virtual" obstacles such as laser beams. With that in mind, Antifreeze developed the Virtual Object Projection Apparatus. Easily affixed to and removed from a cane or walker, the device is an inexpensive laser pointer powered with lightweight AAA batteries and magnified with a lens. When the user depresses a thumb trigger, the laser-lens combination shines a highly visible 5-inch line-the obstacle-on the floor or ground. Total cost to the students: about $47.50.

The project held special meaning for group member Matt Bond, whose grandmother has Parkinson's disease. "It was a chance for us to give Parkinson's patients their freedom back," he says of the Antifreeze project. The group hopes Bond's grandmother will be the first to test its solution.

The introduction to engineering course for freshmen couples hands-on design experience with an overview of engineering. In the class, students learn teamwork, and develop design-process skills, knowledge of hardware and software, and confidence in engineering as a career.

Recently 19 student groups, including Antifreeze, demonstrated their final projects. Their designs include a device that makes it easier for people with poor circulation to don compression socks, a wheelchair ramp, a movable curtain to control lighting in 24-hour dairy barns, and a head cradle that gives a 16-year-old boy with severe cerebral palsy constant access to the switch through which he communicates via computer.

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