The engineering students designed and developed a robotic hand and a mobilized wheelchair for two kids at Bean Elementary.
It's not often someone can honestly say they've changed someone's life for the better. For two groups of students with the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering at Texas Tech University, they can say it in earnest.
It all started at the beginning of their mechanical engineering Design I (ME 4370) class in January. The engineering students were given a list of projects available for the year. Each student then listed, in order, which project they preferred and were grouped with other students who selected the same project.
Out of all the possible projects, two had a similar goal – help a young child at Bean Elementary improve his life.
Lending a hand
All second-grader Aidan Galvan wanted to do was to play catch, legibly write his name and pick up small objects. Due to a malformation in his dominant, right hand, he was unable to do so. But, with the help of the Texas Tech engineering students, that has changed.
Tanner Tausch, a senior mechanical engineering major, and the team in which he was a part, initially chose a different project. When that project fell through, the group was given the opportunity to create the robotic hand for Aidan.
"Our Design I instructor, Jeff Hanson, introduced us to Aidan's project and told us the scenario," Tausch said. "Helping him was a great opportunity because it was something we could do, and we were going to help out someone. We met Aidan and Darlinda Rogers, the computer technologist at Bean Elementary, and she told us pretty much everything she wanted out of the project for Aidan."
Designing Aidan's robotic prosthesis started with the team making a mold of his right hand out of Play-Doh and building it around the mold. As the team started the building process, they had to finesse the system that made the hand work.
"Initially, we were thinking about two different systems of making the hand," Tausch said. "One was a pulley system, where there's a string attached to all the fingers, and whenever your wrist moves, the string stays the same distance, so the fingers close. That way was kind of limited because all the fingers had to move together.
"The final design, which eventually became the actual hand, is cool because each finger can move individually. The process from there was two-pronged. We had to develop the system to get the desired motion, then we used Aidan's mold to make sure it fit his hand properly."
When the team unveiled Aidan's new, robotic hand, his face lit up as if it were Christmas morning. He tried it on and went to work. His first successful task with the new hand: catching a baseball.
After tossing the rubber baseball back and forth a bit, Aidan showed off his new writing skills by writing out his name. The once-wavy A's in his name were no more, as his new hand gave him the necessary stability.
"Without my robot hand, my writing was wobbly," Aidan said, holding up a sheet of paper where he wrote his name without the prosthetic. "My A's look wavy, and it was hard to write. Now, my new hand makes my writing better."
Aidan can also use touch-sensitive screens such as iPads with the 3-D-printed material used to make the fingertips.
Though the robotic hand looks expensive, it only cost around $415 in parts and materials.
"We were initially granted $200 to start," Tausch said. "But knowing this was going to help out a young child in need, we were able to get financial help from other institutions."
The parts were inexpensive, but the group also received donated time and labor from fabricators at the Texas Tech Machine Shop.
The project was serendipitous for the group and Aidan because Aidan's dream is to become an engineer himself. To see this project come together has been worthwhile experience for all involved.
"Seeing him happy has been extremely rewarding," Tausch said. "I think we surpassed expectations. Plus, he's a great kid and our interests in engineering align, so it was cool to see him get something out of it."
Making great strides
Fourth-grader Issac Montoya is like any other young boy. He's playful, rambunctious and full of life. He loves horsing around with his sister and friends. Unlike most kids, Issac does all of this in a wheelchair.
Another group of Texas Tech engineering students came together with one mission: build Issac a motorized wheelchair.
"When we first spoke with Issac, he really stressed being able to play with his sisters and being able to play at recess," said Jeffrey Gingell, a senior mechanical engineering student who worked on Issac's wheelchair. "He also talked about cooking with his dad and being able to reach the countertop.
"When our group got back together after talking with him, we focused on making him a chair where he can go off-road – on grass and gravel – and he won't have any restrictions. We also focused on creating something where he can get to different heights – counters, different tables, anything like that."
The students decided the only way to get everything they wanted for Issac meant starting from scratch.
"We started with the frame, then added the wheels and pulleys," Gingell said. "From there, we attached the jacks and the chair. We basically started from the ground up and had a lot of help from the guys at the Texas Tech Machine Shop. We couldn't have done it without them."
Creating a custom-made wheelchair from nothing seems like it would be an exorbitant expense, but the students were able to accomplish their mission with donations from other kindhearted people.
"The cost came out to just over $1,000," Gingell said. "A lot of it was raised by donations from YouCaring – a crowdfunding website – and the amazing faculty at Texas Tech, so we're thankful."
When Issac was strapped into his new wheelchair, you could feel his excitement. The chair enables him to focus more on keeping up with his peers instead of beeing tired from pushing himself everywhere.
Seeing Issac finally use a product the Texas Tech students designed and built made a significant impact on Gingell.
"It's pretty crazy to think about because, not even a year ago, we were looking at this thing on a computer, and it was just an image," Gingell said. "To look at it now, it's almost identical to our dream of how we wanted it to be, so it's awesome to see."