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Biomedical Engineering Project Provides a Big Step Forward for Small Feet

May 9, 2012

The sound of Mason Unton's tennis shoes scampering down the hallway of Westfield, Indiana's Maple Glen Elementary School was music to the ears of his parents and the three senior Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology biomedical engineering students that designed a device to assist walking movement.

       Mason with Device
  A Test Walk: Kindergartener Mason Unton admires some of the new features on an assistive walking device specially created by senior biomedical engineering students Geoff Schau (right), Aaron Kiraly (top, right) and Jordan Oja. The device has a seat, hand brakes, and can fold up for easy storage or transport.

One step at a time, the 6-year-old boy is conquering the physical challenges of spastic cerebral palsy, which limits movement of his right hand and both of his legs. He spent his first days on life support and physicians didn't give much hope for a long-term prognosis. His mother's wish was for Mason to someday return her loving smiles.

"He's our special boy," she stated during a recent interview.

Mason's parents, Chris and Kristy, approached Rose-Hulman's Department of Applied Biology and Biomedical Engineering for help in updating a juvenile assistive walking device that would support the child's continued physical development. The easy-to-use device will also allow Mason to join friends playing baseball and other sports.

"He's really advancing every day, and this device will give him more independence," stated Chris, a 2002 Rose-Hulman computer science alumnus. "The fact that my college is helping my son makes this even more special."

Seniors Aaron Kiraly, Jordan Oja, and Geoff Schau spent considerable time getting to know Mason and his parents. Special requests included a seat, hand brakes, and components painted green, Mason's favorite color.

From there, the students studied video of Mason's movements. They examined physical tolerances, taking into account that Mason is an energetic-and growing-boy. Finally, they created several prototypes with numerous hand-crafted parts.

"This is about as hands-on as a project can get," says Schau.

The new seat feature allows Mason to move farther, faster, and play harder by ensuring that he always has a comfortable resting place. The brakes provide stability when going down a hill or ramp. The device also easily folds for storage and transport to school or sport activities.

"It's really cool and was made just for me," said Mason after recently receiving the device at his school. Within minutes he was using the walking assistant to keep up with his kindergarten classmates as they dashed off to classroom activity.

"Wow, that's neat," added one of Mason's friends.

Those reactions brought smiles to the student design team.

"It is great to see what Mason can hope to strive for in the future," stated Kiraly.

The assistive walking device was one of several capstone biomedical engineering design projects completed this academic year for personal or academic clients. Other groups produced a custom, vest-like orthopedic device to provide relief to children with severely slouched shoulders who have difficulty gauging their body position; a lower-arm prosthetic device to help an 8-year-old boy grasp objects; a mobile cart that allows a young girl to safely travel through her family's hilly backyard; and a custom, portable device to help a woman with Wernicke's aphasia to communicate with others.

"We really believe that students get a lot out of doing real projects for real people," said Kay C. Dee, Ph.D., co-instructor of the biomedical engineering design course.

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See Mason's reaction as the students deliver the device to his school-a story broadcast on Indianapolis' WTHR. (link to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZ__8OHdxLY&feature=youtu.be)