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Assistive Medical Technologies

Video by Ashley Barnas

Student club provides hands-on experience and community service

Thanks to a group of creative students at the University of Delaware, D’Mazana, who has cerebral palsy, is now riding in style on a miniature black BMW sedan modified to help overcome his mobility limitations. 

The five-year-old, whose parents brought him to Delaware from Washington, D.C., to get the car, is joined by dozens of others who have been helped by members of UD’s Assistive Medical Technologies (AMT) Club over the past three years.

The students have adapted a jumper-type toy for preschooler Natalie so that the height of the device can be adjusted as she grows, and they’re working on a treadle-powered “Step and Go” three-wheeler for 8-year-old Emma, whose limited knee range of motion prevents her from pedaling a regular bike.

At a recent Friday afternoon AMT meeting, Room 131B in Spencer Laboratory was packed with people, including physical therapists, parents, children and club members wearing red shirts with “And you thought PVC pipe was just for plumbers” printed on the back.

Drawers along the walls in the club headquarters are filled with wire strippers, scissors, pliers, vice grips, drill bits, hot glue guns, socket wrenches and screwdrivers. 

With guidance from family members and health care professionals, the students use these tools and such basic supplies as fleece blankets, strapping, foam padding, simple switches — and of course lots of PVC pipe — to make ride-on cars, walkers, bikes and other devices safe, comfortable and user friendly for their clients.

It’s all about getting the kids moving so they can experience their environment and interact with their peers.

“We’re always looking for simple solutions that can make a huge difference for these families,” says club president Erica Comber, an Honors Program student majoring in biomedical engineering. 

“It’s great to see so many children helped through this process, and it’s helped me as a biomedical engineering major — I’ve learned about power tools and building while changing children’s lives.”

The club was the brainchild of Vinu Rajendran, who started modifying cars as part of UD’s GoBabyGo program in 2013. 

“Our mission is to use engineering principles to help people in the community,” he says. “Club members quickly learn that a pulley is more than a pulley — it’s a simple device that can be a really powerful solution to a problem, as well as a tool for rehabilitation.” 

“Even the same engineering principle can bring about several completely different solutions,” he adds. “For example, depending on where it’s placed, a switch can get a child to push, pull, reach, stand up, or move his head.”

Faculty adviser Sarah Rooney emphasizes that her only role is to act as a sounding board.

“This is all student driven, and the action comes from them,” she says. “They review the project submissions and develop a tailored design process for each family. The students don’t receive course credit or get paid — everything they’ve accomplished has been through their own self-initiated drive.”

The AMT members working with Emma get input from her mother about her abilities, but they know that Emma’s voice is important too. She may have limited motion, but she is by no means limited in her opinions about what she wants her “new” bike to look like. 

Emma is not happy about the PVC pipe being installed around the seat to contain her, but she’s satisfied when they tell her it can be painted yellow, her current favorite color. The team also brainstorms ways to modify the handlebars and to accommodate her as she grows taller.

“This is such a great service to the community,” says her mother, who searched nationwide for the special type of tricycle and finally found a used one in Florida on eBay. 

“A bike is such an important thing for a child, and this will enable Emma to keep up the work she’s already doing in therapy and also to ride with the rest of the family,” she says.

While most parents of teenagers shudder at the concept of peer pressure, for members of the AMT Club and their pint-size clients, it’s part of the deal.

“We want to make these vehicles and devices so cool that other kids will want them,” Rajendran says.

As he gets ready to graduate this week with a degree in biomedical engineering, he looks back over his years with the club.

“It’s gone exactly where I envisioned it going but never thought it would,” he says. “The club was founded on smiles, and I never get tired of seeing them on the faces of kids that have been given the gift of movement.”

About the Assistive Medical Technologies Club

AMT is a group dedicated to designing, building, and distributing cost-effective models of assistive medical devices to allow for non-discriminatory access and availability to various groups of people.

Goals of AMT include the following:

  • To work with the GoBabyGo project in non-profit ventures concerning the prototyping and offering of such technologies to children with developmental disabilities.
  • To provide an environment for practical application of engineering principles by giving students hands-on opportunities to design, construct, and modify devices for medical use.
  • To foster creativity and innovation as well as encourage interdisciplinary cooperation in the prototyping and building process.
  • To strive for cost-efficient development of these medical aids by using common, readily accessible materials.
  • To impact the Newark community by providing families in need with appropriate medical devices that they could not otherwise access.

Follow AMT on Facebook to learn more about the club’s ongoing projects and upcoming workshops.