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University students innovate to help Craig patients and grads

June 02, 2014

Craig Hospital patients have unique challenges and equipment needs that can’t always be met by commercially available items. Groups of engineering students from two area universities are working to meet those needs—and learning a thing or two along the way.

Twice a year, a small group of freshman and sophomore students from the Colorado School of Mines EPICS (Engineering Practicum Introductory Course Sequence) program work with Craig to design projects that have real-world applications for patients and graduates with spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries. The course is designed to give the students experience working with clients, designing and presenting a solution to a problem.

“The rules of design are different here,” says Dave Birkle, Craig rehabilitation engineer. “Something that could work perfectly for an able-bodied individual might not work at all for a Craig patient—the students really learn what’s doable and what’s not.”

The groups meet with Birkle and Jenniy Peltier, an occupational therapist in the Adaptive Technology Lab. They present the students with a list of project ideas that have been suggested by the occupational and physical therapists at Craig. After they resent the students with an explanation of the problem and the specifications, the teams select a project and design a solution. If the team has created good drawings, Birkle will work with the students to build it in his workshop. He guides the students along the way with suggestions and feedback, incorporating feedback from therapists and at times, from patients.

“The input that students get at Craig Hospital is exceptional because they get to work closely with the Rehabilitation Engineering Department as well as Occupational Therapy. The projects are clearly defined and, perhaps most importantly, they are really needed by Craig patients,” says Carrie Sonneborn, School of Mines adjunct faculty member and EPICS Mentor. “This means that there is the expectation to produce a working model that, ideally, can and will be put to immediate use.”

Senior engineering students from the University of Denver also work with Craig’s Adaptive Technology lab to design a piece of equipment that is not commercially available or adapt an existing item.

Students from the two schools have created a variety of different projects over the years, including:

  • “eye tracking” glasses which allow an individual with no arm or head movement to use his or her eyes to control a computer,
  • a computer monitor mount that allows multiple positioning for patients standing, sitting or in bed
  • a mapping system that allows an individual using a wheelchair to grade hiking trails for accessibility
  • a brain controlled nurse call light

The occupational therapiDSC_1742releasedsts are currently using one such project, a cart with buttons on adjustable arms that helps patients play computer games to work on their therapy goals, such as reaching, balance, visual scanning or sequencing.

“These partnerships are great, because the students give us fresh ideas and they learn what it’s like to work on a real-world project,” says Jill Baldessari, Craig’s Assistive Technology Specialist. “We all benefit, and working closely with other organizations is just another way for Craig to give back to the community.”