Rice students work to bring deft touch to amputees

4/17/2014 10:45 AM
By Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) — People with prosthetic hands have to handle everything with care.

When picking up a delicate egg, they can't instinctively modulate how hard they're gripping it. When placing a glass on a table, they have to watch closely that they don't loosen their hold before it is set down safely.

A group of five Rice University engineering students have been working for months to solve this problem and develop a device to bring a little more normalcy to the lives of amputees.

They've created an armband that amputees can wear with their prosthetics. As the artificial hand opens and closes, a rubber wheel in the armband rotates, pulling against the arm and indicating to what degree the hand is open or closed.

"Using a prosthetic is still about learning what you can do and what you can't do," said Bryan Solomon, a 22-year-old bioengineering senior at Rice University. "It takes a lot of mental effort to use a prosthetic limb — you have to watch it all the time."

Solomon and the other members of his group, called Magic Touch, have worked all year to solve one of dozens of conundrums presented to engineering students at Rice at the beginning of the school year by a variety of science and technology leaders.

Five Rice seniors make up the group: mechanical engineering majors Julie Walker, 21, and Michael Schubert, 22, both from New Jersey; bioengineering majors Caitlin Makatura, 22, from North Texas; Solomon, a Seattle native; and electrical and computer engineering major Xuejiao Liang, an exchange student from China who goes by Holly.

Magic Touch is one of 85 teams that presented their solutions Thursday at the university's popular annual engineering showcase. Past winners have created important tools for global health, from a lightweight microscope that fits in a backpack to an air pump that keeps infants breathing using aquarium equipment and a water bottle. The showcase is a chance for students to show off their work and for industry officials to find future workers who are needed more and more in science, technology, engineering and math, commonly known as STEM fields.

"The students have poured their heart and soul into this project," said Maria Oden, director of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, where students have tinkered on their inventions for the last year.

The winner of this year's showcase will take home a $5,000 top prize, and there are a number of other grants teams can win, as well. But more important than the money, Oden says, is a chance for students to do engineering work with real world constraints, from a tight deadline to limited funding.

"Engineers go into engineering because they want to make things and solve problems," Oden told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1lbAhxu ). "That's what this is."

The program's popularity has ballooned, even in the face of a shortage of STEM workers.

Education, industry and political leaders — all the way up to President Barack Obama — have called on schools to push STEM education. More than 900 students work in the classes taught out of the design kitchen — that's nearly triple the number who took classes there when the kitchen opened five years ago, Oden said.

The kitchen can help stem the drain from STEM courses, as well. There's a growing push to get freshmen in the kitchen, Oden said, so they can take part in hands-on projects that keep them motivated while they take some of the most difficult courses of their college career.

"It gives students a chance to see why they're taking those hard classes," Oden said.

The senior engineering course has produced more than just STEM workers. Past inventions have gone on to win national grants, pass clinical studies and have an effect on global health.

Team Baby Bubbles, for instance, which took home the top prize in 2010, was charged with creating a device to keep infants breathing. The problem was presented by doctors in a teaching hospital in Malawi that partners with Rice. Malawi has one of the highest premature birth rates in the world, and the need for bubble CPAP, or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, devices to keep their lungs pumping oxygen, is great there.

The devices, however, can cost upward of $6,000. The Baby Bubbles invention — made out of a shoebox, aquarium pumps and a water bottle — cost just $150.

In a 2012 clinical study, funded by a $250,000 federal grant, the team's invention proved to bump the survival rates of premature infants in Malawi from 44 percent to 71 percent. The device has since been perfected — it now costs about $400, because they no longer use a shoebox, but the aquarium equipment remains — and is now used in 19 of 27 hospitals in the country.

"We'd always hoped the CPAP would have this sort of impact — that it would help patients and really make a difference," said Jocelyn Brown, a member of team Baby Bubbles who continues to work on the device to this day. "But to actually have the stats to prove that was really exciting."

This year's showcase will feature equally weighty work. One team is working on a device that could help doctors in developing countries monitor jaundice in children.

Team Biliquant has created a method of separating bilirubin, which can cause jaundice, from blood samples using a piece of treated paper.

"Paper is one of the things that is very cheap and abundant," said Stephanie Tzouanas, a 22-year-old senior on the team.

They created a device that shines light through the paper to sensors on the other side. The light can't go through the bilirubin, so the more bilirubin, the less light will pass through. Team Biliquant has a provisional patent for the technique, but their invention has yet to be tested. Still, they're hopeful they could have the same impact Team Baby Bubbles had before them.

The members of Magic Touch are hoping the same.

The group, which came together to work on the project because they wanted something that could use expertise from each of their fields, spent months perfecting their design, weeding out other options, including some that pinched or twisted the skin. Those designs, they said, felt unnatural. So they settled on the wheel, which stretches the skin to give people an idea of where their fingers are.

"It's not perfect, but it's better than no feeling at all," Walker said.

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com


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