University of Rochester

Biomedical Engineering Students Win National Design Competition

August 5, 2005

Four biomedical engineering students at the University of Rochester have won the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center's Accessible Medical Instrumentation Competition for their exercise cycle that can be used by people with a variety of disabilities, including stroke, Parkinson's, blindness, obesity, and deafness.

The cycle, which features Braille, audio prompts, visual cues, special seating and adjustments, was designed in a course at the University that teaches engineering students to design and develop medical devices. It has proven to be such an ingenious device that the Brain Injury Unit at St. Mary's Hospital has expressed interest in obtaining and using the cycle for its patients undergoing physical therapy.

"We're especially proud of this year's students," says Amy Lerner, associate professor of biomedical engineering and instructor of the biomedical design course. "Nineteen teams from 16 universities around the country designed devices for this competition, and we won first place the first year we entered."

The designing students are all biomedical engineering graduates: Amy Chi-Yun Huang of Emeryville, Calif., Megan Damcott of Sherman, N.Y., Ling Dong of Philadelphia, Pa., and Laura Katzenberger of White Lake, N.Y. Greg Gdowski, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, served as the team's faculty supervisor.

The students, calling their team VersaErg Innovations, began with a regular Schwinn recumbent exercise cycle, first replacing its seat with one that swivels, allowing someone with very limited mobility to sit down from a standing position beside the cycle, then easily swivel into a comfortable seated position. The new seat is larger as well to accommodate people weighing up to 300 pounds. Next, the cross bar connecting the seat pedestal to the cycle was removed so that a user could swivel into position without having to lift either leg. Once seated, the patient moves the cycle, not the seat, into position. The pedals and display easily glide toward and away from the patient and lock in place, making it unnecessary for the patient to move, but also allowing a therapist to move the cycle out of the way should assistance be needed.

To make sure the cycle was fully usable by people with vision and hearing difficulties, the students installed a large magnifying glass that can be slid over any part of the display to enlarge it. They painted all the edges of the machine with highly contrasting colors, and even enlisted the help of the National Braille Association in creating Braille stickers to identify buttons and controls across the entire cycle. Voice-recording circuitry also recites the name of whatever button or function has been activated for those visually impaired patients who cannot read Braille.

The Brain Injury Unit at St. Mary's Hospital was also involved in helping the students understand what would be necessary to make such a piece of equipment easier for people with disabilities. The physical therapy staff at St. Mary's encouraged the students to develop the "walk-through" design, as well as the swiveling seat, citing people who had suffered a stroke or Parkinson's diseaseóbringing a real-world understanding of the needs of physical therapy patients that might not be obvious to an engineer. The students also received advice from members of the Rochester Disabilities Cluster at the University of Rochester, a group which comprises faculty from several departments who focus on educating the community about disability issues.

"The physical therapists who saw it were very pleased with the design," says Lerner. "Even recreational therapists from the clinic took a look at it and all think it would be a terrific help for their patients."

The students went beyond merely designing the cycle itself, participating in the University's Forbes Engineering Entrepreneurship Competition. They developed a business plan for how the cycle could be commercially developed, which won them third place (another biomedical engineering team won first place with a device to simulate hearing loss). Since accessible designs can be difficult to market, the team developed a plan based on allowing customers to select a range of modifications to fit their needs.

The students developed the cycle as part of the biomedical engineering program's Senior Design Sequence, which is a course required of all biomedical engineering undergraduates. The course has garnered national praise, most notably from the Whitaker Foundation and the Biomedical Engineering Society, for its distinctive customer-driven approach to design. Projects are chosen and developed in response to real-world needs and criteria, rather than on simple course outlines. In addition, the students receive training in entrepreneurship, U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation, and the ethical issues of biomedical design. Students have designed clinical devices, research instruments and devices to aid those with disabilities, with customers from the University of Rochester Medical Center and others from the local community.

Each year, students undertake eight to 10 projects and Lerner is already seeking new "customers," like the Brain Injury Unit at St. Mary's Hospital, who are interested in providing challenges to next year's students. Individuals or companies are welcome to contact Lerner directly at amy.lerner@rochester.edu, or check the course Web page, www.courses.rochester.edu/lerner/SRDesign, for more information.

The competition was open to students in any biomedical engineering or industrial design program, with a prize of $1,000 to the winner. It was funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education.




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