Real-world trial, error spell success for E-town Engineering team
May 13, 2016   //   By:   //   Real-world Learning

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The story begins with a need. A mother’s need to help her son face the world, literally.

In a room filled with encouraging voices, infectious energy and brightly colored pads, cubes and stools a little boy sits — the center of attention. It’s the actual sitting that pulls everyone’s interest, the tentative moving of his head from left to right and back to the left again, his soft gaze landing on his mother’s face.

In December 2014, Jaclyn Rhodes, contacted Elizabethtown College Engineering Department looking for someone to create a device to assist her son Teddy. The 3-year-old is challenged by cerebral palsy and a hypoxic brain injury—loss of oxygen to the brain—which cause motor function issues. The mechanism she hoped to have made would help improve Teddy’s muscle control, she said. This, in turn, would help him see the world.

While attending a conference to learn about new medical advances to help children like Teddy, the former nurse was introduced to the concept of vibrating pads that can assist in muscle stimulation. That’s where mechanical engineering students Buck Kauffman, David Good and Jake Evans, enter the story. Their E-town professor Sara Atwood had asked her students if a few would be interested in working on the project. Kauffman, Good and Evans volunteered.

Taking problems and using our engineering skills to figure out how to best solve them.”

The documentation and trial-and-error research took three semesters and fulfilled the students’ senior capstone requirement.

Teddy, who rides in a wheelchair stroller, is perpetually slumped forward. He has no strength to hold himself erect and, therefore, his entire upper body becomes compressed. The idea was to strengthen his core by stimulating his back and neck muscles. By doing so, he will sit straighter, opening his chest area, helping him breathe and swallow.

Several times a week he is attended by a physical therapist and an occupational therapist at Schreiber Pediatric Rehab Center in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he participates in a stretching and maneuverability program. His family—he has three siblings—are from nearby Bowmansville.

To stimulate the small muscles in his back the therapists previously had used a handheld device, which posed problems during therapy.  “We needed something with a certain level of stimulation to get into the muscles in his back and neck,” said Bernie Hershey, an occupational therapist at Schreiber, who was the consultant to the students. Those muscles along the spine, she said, are hard to reach. “They are especially small in a child.”


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After watching a therapy session in which the therapists had to hold Teddy up while putting him through his routine, the engineering students envisioned a hands-free device. They shared their idea with his mother and the therapists.

They all agreed “hands-free was the ticket.”

When they started working on the design prototypes in January 2015, the engineering students first considered a car seat, but the size and structure created drawbacks.

Next, they tried a child’s life vest. Its nylon fabric made it easy to clean, and it could be snugged tight against Teddy’s body. They removed the vest’s stuffing and put a zipper up the back for easy access to the components. Velcro was placed inside so they could move the circuit to different areas on the back.

They needed “targeted stimulation,” said Good. “This allows him to sit up and focus.”

However, when the students added the vibration—various test units pulled from a knee sleeve used for arthritis, a weight loss belt and a palm massager—all cycled too high, creating more of a massage effect than stimulation.

The perfect frequency for Teddy’s use was a fixed 72 Hz, a unit of measurement defined as 72 cycles per second. “At the right frequency the muscle fires,” explained Hershey. Teddy’s muscles would be stimulated to attention.

Evans described the concept as someone dripping cold water down your back. The sensation makes a person tense and arch.

Unable to come up with the correct frequency, the team wired up their own circuit. The bonus of creating their own device is “it’s maneuverable, wireless and uses targeted vibration,” said Good. It runs on two AA batteries.

This process of discovery, said Good is “all related to our course work. Taking problems and using our engineering skills to figure out how to best solve them.”

The students said they took all four years of their engineering coursework and, following product management and design specifications, they created a finished product for a client.

“After a long process of researching a topic well outside their expertise (cerebral palsy and therapy) and, ultimately, designing a prototype that is a bit simple given their level of technical expertise, they finally took the vest to Teddy and it worked SO WELL the first time,” said Atwood. “They realized that a relatively simple, but elegant, design could have such an immediate and substantial impact for another person.

“I think it made them realize their advanced level of expertise and innovation graduating with an engineering degree and how much impact they can make with that knowledge and way of problem solving.”

Good said he had never really envisioned himself using his degree in the medical field, so this project opened his mind to the possibilities.

In April, the team tested the vest.

“We were holding our breath the first time,” said Hershey.

Nothing happened but, when they adjusted the apparatus higher on Teddy’s back, the four little motors the students had designed engaged. Suddenly, Teddy was sitting up.

The students said their expectations were blown away. “To see him sit on his own was amazing,” said Evans. “A month later he can sit for multiple minutes.”

Each session, wearing the vest, Teddy shows more and more engagement. Just this week, Teddy lifted his head away from his chest on his own and looked around the room.

“It’s a rewarding feeling,” said Good. It’s dawning on the students that their creation of this therapeutic vest is, in a great way, responsible for the changes in Teddy’s posture and abilities. As an added bonus: The finished product only cost about $50 in parts.

Standing next to a room literally filled with brightly colored therapy bicycles, the three students were smiling and nodding their heads as the therapists continued to stretch Teddy’s arms and legs. They watched as he sat on his own, the vest activating muscles mostly unused before.

The success story of the vest has been a process of trial and error but this latest chapter offers promise.

As Teddy’s mom takes the vest home with her after each session, Schreiber needs more.

“Oh, yeah, we could use lots more!” said Hershey.

With this demand in mind, Rick Basom, from the College’s Social Enterprise Institute (SEI), is researching patent possibilities so the vest can go into production. The SEI, which blends social goals with revenue generation, works with local institutions like Schreiber to get ideas for student projects.

As Evans, Good and Kauffman are graduating this Saturday, May 14, the project will be passed along to a group of rising E-town seniors who will continue the research this June as part of the College’s Summer Scholarship, Creative Arts and Research Projects.

“This is huge,” said Hershey of the project. “I am so proud of these guys.”

About the Author :

E.A. (Elizabeth) Harvey is the communications manager and news editor at Elizabethtown College. She has worked in the Office of Marketing and Communications since 2008, after more than two decades as a newspaper feature writer. She holds a bachelor's degree in corporate communication from Elizabethtown College.