Senior Design 2016: Top projects develop improvements for people with disabilities

Tom Moone
7/12/2016 4:31:00 PM

One of the highlights of the spring semester in the Department of Bioengineering is Senior Design Day, a celebration of the teams and their presentations. During this year-long capstone course, students bring together what they have learned over four years to develop a team project proposed by an outside client.

According to Bioengineering Teaching Associate Professor Jennifer Amos, who teaches Senior Design, the course includes learning the regulatory process that affects many bioengineering companies and the importance of looking at a product’s potential impact. “It’s more than just making the widget or device,” she said. “It’s about clinical need, and making sure products we are making are really relevant.”

The final presentation is an opportunity for the teams to show faculty, staff, clients, peers and family members what the students have achieved.

Each year, awards are presented during Senior Design Day to the groups whose projects and demonstrations have been particularly noteworthy. This year, both of the teams that were recognized developed projects to improve the experiences of people with certain disabilities.


As Team Quantact, Grace Deetjen, Lauren Grant, Mohsin Ismail, and Joe Sombeck won the award for Best Vendor Display and Best Presentation - Judges’ Choice. This team worked on a project proposed by Aerospace Engineering Professor Timothy Bretl, who performs research on developing inexpensive prosthetic limbs. He wanted to add sensory feedback to a prosthetic hand.

“We took an existing prosthetic hand that was built in Dr. Bretl’s lab, and we embedded barometric pressure sensors in the fingertips of the hand to enable sensory feedback,” explained Grant.

With such feedback, a person using a prosthetic hand would be able to pick up an empty soda can without crushing it. Even more important, the user would be able to pick up an object without needing to look directly at what he or she is doing. The system would provide an experience somewhat similar to that of a natural arm.

It was essential that the resulting system maintain safety for the user. Too much stimulus could cause a shock to the user, which could quickly make them stop using the device.

“There are a lot of safety measures in the code that made sure that, if the code or something seemed funky or if a value didn’t get transferred over, it would notice that right away and it would either abort or fix it in whatever way makes sense,” said Sombeck.

At their vendor display, Team Quantact allowed visitors to experience the force feedback generated via stimulation electrodes when a prosthetic hand detects contact as if the prosthetic hand was their own.


Quantact's prosthetic hand featuring sensory element (and orange-and-blue Illini covering).
Quantact's prosthetic hand featuring sensory element (and orange-and-blue Illini covering).
Quantact's prosthetic hand featuring sensory element (and orange-and-blue Illini covering).


Cochlear Connections

The Cochlear Connections team of Rakesh Vyas, Rachel Walker, Blake Wilhelmsen, and Ashley Williams won the award for Best Senior Design Presentation (by popular vote). The students worked on a project for Dr. Michael Novak, a local surgeon and ear, nose and throat specialist at Carle Hospital in Urbana, Ill. He wanted a new design for cochlear implants with replaceable electronics that don’t also require removing the electrodes that go into the cochlea, which could damage the cochlea further.

The Bioengineering seniors designed a new system that allows the electronics to be removed while the electrodes remain in place. With input from Novak and Advanced Bionics, a cochlear implant manufacturer, the team developed a proof-of-concept model for the new process.

“Our biggest obstacle was the scaling of everything,” said Walker. “The wires themselves are actually thinner than hair.”

The team had to enlarge their material to test how well the parts and material would interact. They were able to present a design process that could work to ensure that the electrodes in the cochlea would not necessarily need to be removed.

“I really enjoyed the experience,” Walker said. “Working with a client was different than working on a class project. This was something that was going to impact someone else.”

The team’s process is expected to reduce the risk of damage to the auditory nerve during implant replacement surgery and increase the speed at which the procedure can be performed.

Sometimes these year-long projects are feasible and innovative enough to by picked up and advanced by subsequent Senior Design teams or the sponsors long after the seniors have graduated. This year, the clients/sponsors of both teams were very pleased with the results. Novak told the team that he plans to continue working to devise an implant that could provide the benefits intended by the team’s design. And Bretl and his lab were happy to have multiple sensors they can use in their continued research to develop low-cost prosthetics.


Comparison of size of the Cochlear Connections' electronics housing to diameter of a penny.
Comparison of size of the Cochlear Connections' electronics housing to diameter of a penny.
Comparison of size of the Cochlear Connections' electronics housing to diameter of a penny.



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