Rice engineering students have created a minimally invasive device to monitor the pulse and oxygen levels of a fetus undergoing endoscopic surgery in a mother’s womb, and recently carried out proof-of-concept testing at Texas Children’s Hospital. From left: student Claudia Iriondo, Dr. Magdalena Sanz Cortes and students Thomas Loughlin, Samir Saidi and Kathryn Wallace. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
Rice University students have created a prototype of a device to monitor the pulse and oxygen levels of a fetus undergoing endoscopic fetal surgery in a mother’s womb.
The WombOx team of senior engineering students worked in close collaboration with the Texas Children’s Fetal Center to create their device, which miniaturizes the components found in a pulse oximeter commonly clipped to a patient’s finger in a doctor’s office.
Pulse oximeters “see” oxygen levels in the blood by comparing light from a source to the light that reaches a detector on the other side of the finger. The instrument can calculate oxygen saturation by how much light it senses is absorbed by the tissue.
That kind of information hasn’t been available to doctors working to help fetuses suffering from congenital defects such as spina bifida, the incomplete closure of the backbone around the spinal cord.
Texas Children’s Hospital is pioneering efforts to treat such conditions through the endoscopic procedure known as fetoscopic surgery. During surgery, doctors are able to monitor the health of a fetus through ultrasound, but that only gives them a basic heartbeat. Knowing oxygen levels in the blood is critical when doctors need to act quickly to help a fetus in distress, and the WombOx device shows potential for providing such data in real time.
Rice bioengineering students work at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen on their prototype of a pulse oximeter intended to monitor the vital signs of fetuses during endoscopic surgery. From left: Claudia Iriondo, Kathryn Wallace, Samir Saidi and Thomas Loughlin. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
To build the prototype, the bioengineering students, Claudia Iriondo, Thomas Loughlin, Samir Saidi and Kathryn Wallace, worked closely with Dr. Magdalena Sanz Cortes, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and a clinician at the Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women, as well as their Rice faculty adviser, engineering lecturer Eric Richardson. It is the product of their capstone design project, required of most senior engineering students at Rice.
A few weeks after winning the top Willy Revolution Award, a $5,000 prize presented at Rice’s annual Engineering Design Showcase for innovation in design, and days before commencement, the team spent a morning in a device-testing suite at the Pavilion for Women to watch their prototype in action.
“This project was challenging because of the size of the instruments that we work with,” Sanz Cortes said. “When we started talking about the whole project, we talked about the size of a pulse oximeter. Transforming that into the size of the device they have created is very challenging.
“The other challenging part was the mechanics, how to design something that is safe enough for the baby and can be compatible with our surgeries. It’s not a trivial matter, and they did a great job,” she said.
At first glance, the device is a loop of wire on a hollow stick. But a closer look reveals that the wire is a special hybrid that expands to a predetermined shape at the correct temperature. It carries LEDs and a photodetector on miniature circuit boards that illuminate and sense the flow of blood through the tissue underneath.
The WombOx prototype built by students at Rice miniaturizes the electronics of a pulse oximeter device to enable monitoring the vital signs of a fetus during endoscopic surgery. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
The loop is packaged in a retractable sheath that fits through the small incision made in fetoscopic surgeries. The WombOx device is used like all other endoscopic tools, with a miniature camera. The idea is to insert the tube into the mother’s womb and extend the loop. Once it expands, doctors use the video feed to guide the loop around a limb and gently tighten it, putting the sensors in place to monitor the fetus throughout the surgical procedure.
“Our design, like other endoscopic tools, is intended for single use,” Iriondo explained. ‘The device is durable enough to withstand unsheathing, expansion in the womb, attachment to the fetus and resheathing during removal.”
“We took the same components found in the finger clip and basically mounted them onto flexible circuit boards we printed here,” Loughlin said. “There are two LEDs, a red and an infrared, mounted on one side, and on the other side there’s a photodetector that will detect how much light is passing through, which is related to the absorbance properties of the blood. That’s related to how oxygenated the blood is.
“We turn the signal from the photodetector into a voltage that can be read, processed and turned into a number for oxygen saturation of the blood,” he said.
At the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, the team tested their device on a baby doll in a ball, modeled after a similar unit in the Texas Children’s facility. The hospital’s more sophisticated version allowed them to insert a rudimentary WombOx through a port that models an incision and successfully loop it around the arm of the doll within, following their progress on a monitor.
The focus of their project was to get the electronics right, miniaturizing the components of a pulse oximeter to fit inside a tube only a few millimeters wide. What made it possible was having a loop made of nitinol, a flexible wire of nickel and titanium that can be formed into a specific shape. It collapses within the tube and returns to its intended shape when exposed to body temperature.
The team designed a sine wave-like section into the loop to give surgeons a visual reference. If the sine disappears, the loop is too tight.
The device will now go to engineers at Texas Children’s for further refinement and validation, Wallace said.
“A lot of doctors have encouraged us and said, ‘This is amazing, I’m glad you guys are doing this.’ No one is taking it up because there’s not a huge return on investment, but this will be amazing if it can actually monitor a fetus’s vital signs and intervene if something goes wrong,” she said.
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Cali, Jonah, Kamia and Rockie are the Houston Zoo’s resident California sea lions – and they absolutely love fish.
One of the Houston Zoo’s sea lions interacts with the Sea Lion Enrichment Device developed by Rice engineering students. Photo credit: Jeff Fitlow.
They’re also highly intelligent, inquisitive mammals capable of mastering and engaging in intricate behaviors, and they enjoy frequent mental and physical stimulation. This is why the zoo recruited a group of six Rice engineering students enrolled in Introduction to Engineering Design (ENGI 120) to develop a new enrichment device for the sea lions to use during breaks from training sessions, shows and exploring their habitat at the zoo.
The students – Amelia Brumwell, Matthew Chagnot, Cody Davis, Jeremy Palmer, Brady Taylor and Jasmine Zhou – began developing the Sea Lion Enrichment Device (S.L.E.D.) in fall 2015 under the supervision of Ann Saterbak, associate dean of engineering education and professor in the practice of bioengineering education, and Matthew Wettergreen, a lecturer at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK). The team worked with Houston Zoo trainers to understand the needs of the sea lions and what the trainers were looking for in an enrichment device.
“Throughout the fall semester, we went through the design process, figured out what was going to work, narrowed down our ideas and built our final prototype to give to them at the end of the semester,” Palmer said.
The S.L.E.D. is constructed from PVC pipes and consists of four pieces that can be fitted together as one or two devices. Each section has a hole covered by a rotating collar, which the sea lions must use their problem-solving skills to open. When they use their noses to push these pieces around, they can line up the holes to release fish, ice or toys from the wells.
The trainers introduced the sea lions to the device with the holes exposed, so they would learn that treats and toys were inside. Eventually the trainers closed the holes, and the sea lions learned to manipulate the device to release the items.
“Our primary concern with our design, since we’re working with the zoo and live animals, is … the animals’ safety,” Chagnot said. “Right away, that knocked out a lot of potential materials.”
“The idea whenever we make enrichment is that it satisfies a specific goal, and in this instance, it is foraging and problem-solving,” said Heather Crane, a sea lion trainer at the zoo. “The students had to make sure the device would float, and we wanted it to have four arms so that each of our four sea lions could be involved at the same time if we wanted.”
On April 21 the students had their first opportunity to watch the sea lions interact with the device, something Zhou described as an “interesting experience” for the team.
Her fellow team member, Brumwell, said that all of the interesting places around Rice – including the zoo – and the many opportunities because of these surroundings factored into her decision to come to the university.
“I love going to the zoo,” she said.
Crane called it “extremely rewarding” to have this partnership with Rice University and to be able to fuse the science of engineering and the mental engagement of the sea lions.
“For me personally, (it’s about) reaching out to the students and teaching them the safety aspects of building these types of enrichment devices and what is the goal,” she said. “It’s not just about making a toy; it’s actually about encouraging natural responses from our sea lions.”
For more information on other design projects at the OEDK, visit http://oedk.rice.edu/.
Rice University engineering students have created a method to remove ureteral stents from children that causes less pain and costs less. From left, Margaret Watkins, Valerie Pinillos, John Chen, Allen Zhao and Eric Yin. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
A simple device created by Rice University engineering students may shield young children from much of the pain of having a stent removed after a urinary tract procedure.
Their invention, the Ureteral Stent Electromagnetic Removal Bead, is part of a stent inserted into the ureter, the duct that allows urine to pass from the kidney to the bladder. The stent keeps the passageway open after a pyeloplasty procedure to remove an obstruction.
Removing the stent after four weeks of healing typically involves inserting an endoscope into the urethra and bladder to locate the stent and pull it, an invasive procedure for which children are placed under anesthesia.
The students who call themselves Rice Outstenting were asked by Dr. Chester Koh at Texas Children’s Hospital to find a way to simplify this procedure, which is currently performed on more than 2,000 pediatric patients nationwide each year. They came up with the combination of a small, coated bead of highly magnetic neodymium and a powerful electromagnet. The bead can pass safely through the urethra as the magnet pulls it out of the body, followed by the stent.
The advantages are clear: There’s less pain and it costs two-thirds less than the standard procedure because it doesn’t require anesthesia and can be completed in minutes rather than hours.
“The stent is implanted after surgery in this area because if you don’t put something inside to keep the channel open, the ureter will try to close in on itself,” said team member Allen Zhao. While the procedure is now done in a minimally invasive manner with robotic surgery, “in the past it was much more invasive, when they would just open up the child completely,” he said.
The students used a highly magnetic bead and a strong electromagnet in their method to remove ureteral stents. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
Zhao and teammates John Chen, Valeria Pinillos and Margaret Watkins are mechanical engineering majors; teammate Eric Yin is a bioengineering major.
Their device won two significant awards this month: a top $5,000 prize at Rice University’s annual Engineering Design Showcase and the grand prize for student design at the annual Design of Medical Devices Conference in Minneapolis.
The students, who were advised by Rice bioengineering lecturers Eric Richardson and Matthew Elliott, took on the project at the request of Koh, a surgeon in the Division of Pediatric Urology at Texas Children’s and Baylor College of Medicine and a member of several groups that focus on pediatric devices. “A lot of devices are designed for adults, and Dr. Koh is one of the movers trying to develop more devices that are designed for children,” Yin said.
He said Koh challenged them to look at the procedure with a fresh eye. The students briefly considered designing a stent that would dissolve over time, but decided the magnetic attachment would be far simpler and less prone to complications.
The stent itself is identical to those used currently. It’s a flexible plastic tube with curls at each end that sit in the kidney and bladder and help keep it in place. In adults, a string from the bladder end is usually run outside the body through the urethra. After four weeks, a doctor pulls it free.
But in children, “most times, the string is cut off because the doctor doesn’t want anything hanging out of the child that might lead to an infection or accidental removal,” Yin said. “We’re leaving the string in but clipping it to the appropriate length, for the size of the bladder, at the surgeon’s discretion, and tying our bead to the end of it.”
Rice mechanical engineering student John Chen pulls a magnet attached to a stent from a test device. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
The second part of the system is the custom-built electromagnet with a plastic enclosure the team designed and 3-D printed at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. “It has 19 layers, 125 turns of enameled copper wire,” Yin said. “Once it’s turned on, we bring it up close (to the patient) and draw the bead out through the urethra.”
“With a couple of tweaks to the magnet power, we could access the adult market as well,” Pinillos said.
The project will move forward as a Rice-Texas Children’s collaboration led by Koh. “They’ll continue to make modifications and continue the project on its medical device development pathway,” Watkins said.
“This is an important example of where academic partnerships are needed to advance pediatric medical device projects, since the pediatric medical device pipeline is currently limited,” Koh said. “I applaud the Rice team for showing its dedication and passion to the kids under our care at Texas Children’s Hospital.”
Without a hint of irony — given that carbon buckyballs were a Nobel Prize-winning discovery at Rice — Yin mentioned the material in the bead is identical to that used in the now-banned desk toy also known as Buckyballs. Those were small, powerful magnets that, if ingested in multiples, could cause severe internal injuries.
Fortunately for the Rice team’s purposes, one small magnet is enough to make a big difference.
Nine faculty received the 2016 George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching, which honors top Rice professors as determined by the votes of alumni who graduated within the past two, three and five years. Below are the recipients and their comments about the most important lesson they hope their students will remember five years after graduation.
Anthony Várilly-Alvarado, assistant professor of mathematics
“What I want my students to remember most is that math is beautiful. Most people I meet cringe when I tell them I am a mathematician. The most common knee-jerk reactions are: ‘I hated math in school’ or ‘Math was my worst subject.’ I’d like to change this attitude, one student at a time. When a former student meets a mathematician in the future, I’d like them to say something like ‘Math is cool! When I took it in college it was pretty difficult, but I really enjoyed how it all came together.’”
Jenifer Bratter, associate professor of sociology
“The most important lesson I want my students to learn is that mistakes are not the end; they can be the beginning. Some of the best times in the classroom were spent with students sharing something that I didn’t expect that allowed me to rethink what we were discussing. Beyond this, what I most want students to walk away with is a confidence and urgency to ask questions and think critically about finding answers. I’ve been amazed and humbled by students who continue to think sociologically after leaving the sociology classroom and who perhaps come to different or more nuanced conclusions than they would have if they hadn’t entered our classes.”
Carl Caldwell, the Samuel G. McCann Professor of History
“My courses seek to provide many lessons: about the fragility of democracies and the ideologies of dictatorships, about the way political actors reflect on and misrepresent complex systems, about the role of utopias in addressing real world problems. But the single most important lesson I hope that students take away with them is the sense of stepping outside of themselves, of their own routines and closely felt beliefs, in order to examine the world from a distance. Recognizing that objects or systems or ideas are strange, refusing to reduce problems or politics or society to slogans and tweets, and reflecting on the world outside of oneself; such is the experience I hope to create in the classroom, and which I hope remains with them for the rest of their lives. That and learning to deal with excruciatingly long sentences.”
Jason Hafner, associate professor of physics and astronomy and of chemistry
“I hope they remember that everything they see in the world around them can be described by physical laws. I also hope they have learned not to take that world too seriously, and that everybody looks better in a pair of heels.”
Alma Novotny, lecturer of biochemistry and cell biology
“I want them to remember to take their work seriously and not themselves.”
Maria Oden, director of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen and professor in the practice of engineering education
“I hope my students will remember their design project experiences and teams fondly, understanding and appreciating why I made them work so hard, communicate so much and stretch themselves way beyond their own expectations to solve challenges that seemed almost impossible.”
Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the Malcolm Gillis University Professor, director of the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering and of Rice 360° Institute for Global Health
“I hope they will remember to vote for me to receive the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching. (Joking) And I hope they will remember they don’t need anyone’s permission to help solve the world’s problems.”
Ruth Turley, professor of sociology, associate director of research for the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and director of the Kinder Institute’s Houston Education Research Consortium
“My hope for my students is that they will find meaning in what they learn and what they do with that knowledge. I don’t want students to focus on grades but on learning. I don’t want them to focus on jobs but on what they want to accomplish through those jobs and even apart from those jobs.”
Gary Woods, professor in the practice of computer technology and electrical and computer engineering
“Here is the lesson I hope the students remember: To be highly successful in engineering one needs strong technical skills but also excellent communication skills.”
The Brays Yourself team, from left: Kasia Nikiel, Avi Gori, Jinal Mehta, Julianne Crawford, Marie Gleichauf, Sam Greivell and sponsor Charlie Penland. Photo by An Le/Luxe Studio Productions
The Outstenting team, from left: faculty adviser Eric Richardson, Valerie Pinillos, John Chen, Margaret Watkins, Allen Zhao, Eric Yin, faculty adviser Matthew Elliott and clinical adviser Dr. Chester Koh of Texas Children’s Hospital. Photo by Brandon Martin
For the first time, two senior engineering teams, Brays Yourself and Rice Outstenting, tied for the top prize in the George R. Brown Engineering Design Showcase, held April 14 at Rice University’s Tudor Fieldhouse. Each was granted the top prize of $5,000 for the Excellence in Engineering Award.
“Even simple solutions can make a big difference in people’s lives,” said Margaret Watkins of the Rice Outstenting team, which designed a device to simplify the process of removing ureteral stents from children. “This whole project was focused on streamlining it and making it as fast as possible.”
The win completed a great week for the team, which also won the grand prize for student design at the annual Design of Medical Devices Conference in Minneapolis April 12. “We’re absolutely amazed,” Watkins said.
Brays Yourself designed modifications to portions of the Brays Bayou channel in Southwest Houston and a redesign of the corresponding Greenbriar Bridge. The team’s goal was to reduce the 100-year floodplain throughout the bayou to protect commercial development and the Meyerland neighborhood, which suffered extensive damage in the 2015 Memorial Day flood.
“We are just really glad that we could bring attention to an issue that is really important to the people of Houston, and we’re honored to have been recognized for our work,” said team member Kasia Nikiel.
Prizes of $1,000 went to teams for:
Excellence in Freshman Engineering Design Award: OxyCal.
Excellence in Underclassman, Multiyear or Club Engineering Design Award: Express Yourself 2.0.
Excellence in Capstone Engineering Design Award: Tube Much; (com)post-haste; Pre-ictal Predictors (tie).
A prize of $750 went to:
Best Interdisciplinary Engineering Design Award: Just Keep Swimming.
Prizes of $500 went to teams in the following categories:
Best Conceptual or Computational Modeling Engineering Design Award: Yung Stat Squad.
Best Technology for Low-Resource Settings Design Award: Swole in Space.
Best Energy-Related Engineering Design Award: Control Release.
Best Medical Device Technology Award: RevIVe.
Best Computational Technologies for Health and Wellness Design Award: D.O.P.E. Engineering.
Best Gaming, Creative or Innovative Technology Award: Carpal Diem.
Best Aerospace or Transportation Technology Award: Shell Shock.
People’s Choice Award ($500): RevIVe.
Willy Revolution Award ($5,000): Team Wombox.
Willy Revolution Award ($2,500): Rice Eclipse.
The annual public event put on by the George R. Brown School of Engineering and the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen features senior capstone design and other projects by Rice undergraduates. Read about all the participating teams at http://oedk.rice.edu/showcase.
HOUSTON – (April 12, 2016) – Those who make 3-D printed prosthetic hands may come to rely on a printed palm Rice University students developed to help ensure that children get the most out of the devices.
The Rice team calling itself Carpal Diem has developed a testing suite to validate how well 3-D printed hands transfer force from the wearer, typically a child born without a fully formed hand, to the prosthetic intended to help pick up and manipulate small objects.
These 3-D printed hands have become a source of pride for a community of “makers” who trade designs on the Internet and print hands for children who need them. But the Rice students said the 3-D printed prosthetics are not as efficient as they could be.
“Children born without full hands are forced to adapt to the world and figure out how to go about their daily routines,” said Rice student Amber Wang. “If a prosthetic hand is not absolutely perfect in its function, the child will probably discard it and return to his or her own adaptive ways.”
The team members developed their rig as their senior capstone design project, required of most Rice engineering students. It will be on display at this week’s George R. Brown School of Engineering Design Showcase, at which prizes of up to $5,000 will be awarded to the best of more than 80 teams. Gary Woods, a Rice professor in the practice of computer technology and electrical and computer engineering, is the team’s faculty adviser, and Rice alumna Carolyn Huff and her husband, Harrell, are the sponsors.
The team’s suite consists of a motorized wrist-and-palm assembly that can move up to 60 degrees in either direction, a set of objects (a cylinder, a sphere and a rectangular prism) with embedded force sensors and a control program with a graphic user interface. An operator uses the program to bend the wrist and close the printed hand’s fingers and thumb around an object. Sensors in the object send feedback on force strength and distribution to the computer.
Bioengineering majors Nicolette Chamberlain-Simon and Michaela Dimoff, electrical and computer engineering major Nirali Desai and mechanical engineering majors Rachel Sterling and Wang began strategizing even before they returned to Rice for their senior year.
At first, Dimoff said, they thought they would simply design a better hand. “But we realized there were so many designs out there that it was really the force-testing device that needed to happen,” Chamberlain-Simon added.
“If a kid has to put in five pounds of force to only get one pound of grip, that’s a lot of lost efficiency because of how these hands are designed,” Sterling said. “Until we reach a force efficiency of 100 percent, the hands aren’t going to be useful.”
“The industry standards for testing these kinds of devices are not very well established,” Desai said. “We had to get very creative about how we were going to test the accuracy and precision of our device.”
“We’re designing it so someone working with e-NABLE (the global network of volunteers who design and print these prosthetics) can have one in the lab, print three different prototypes and test them in rapid succession,” Dimoff said.
The team hopes to put the first prototype of the testing device and a detailed protocol for its use into the hands of their mentor, Dr. Gloria Gogola, a pediatric hand surgeon at Shriners Hospital for Children-Houston who has worked with many Rice engineering teams in recent years, by the end of the school year.
“Eventually we want to have specs for people who want to make these devices themselves,” Chamberlain-Simon said.
A mighty treehouse goes up around a mighty oak outside Rice’s Ryon Lab. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
The most unique student engineering project of the year may also be the easiest to see: a treehouse built by freshmen just outside Ryon Lab.
The structure came together in the first full week of April when, with all the pieces prepared and all the approvals granted, the team finished what it had started in the fall.
The students — Kevin Trejo, Jordan Wheeler, Philip King, Nathalie Phillips and Nikhil Rajesh — were following through on an idea first generated by an engineering student several years ago.
“The idea to build a treehouse came up when we were in a drought, so we waited,” said Ann Saterbak, a professor in the practice of bioengineering education who advised the team with engineering lecturer Matthew Wettergreen. “Basically it’s been an idea on our master list of projects for many years.”
A students rigged for safety works at the treehouse site.
With guidelines on regions to avoid from Facilities Engineering and Planning, the team walked the campus last fall to choose candidate trees and decided on an oak not far from the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK). “It turned out that the relation between the tree and the OEDK was tantamount to getting it done because we had to get all our tools and supplies back and forth,” Saterbak said. “It’s probably the nicest tree closest to the OEDK.”
“The point was to make it a fun place for students to be,” she said. “We’ll know we succeeded when we see students begin to use it.”
The Rice campus has been a fertile landscape of opportunities for Baker College senior Claire O’Malley. The San Francisco native, a double major in mechanical engineering and visual and dramatic arts, has made her mark from the art studios of Sewall Hall to the shop floors of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK).
“I was really excited about coming to Rice and being able to study studio arts and engineering, and to marry those two and do something interesting with that,” said O’ Malley, who is serving as the co-director of the student-run Matchbox Gallery in Sewall Hall. “I’ve always had a super-intense creative impulse. When I came to Rice, my idea of art was spun 180 degrees. I was exposed to diverse types of art. I interacted with people who think of art differently than I did.” O’Malley said during her four years at Rice, her understanding of the importance of art and her impulse to make art have changed.
Wearing her mechanical engineering hat, she is currently in the final stages of a yearlong design project to create an articulating arm that assists with wastewater cleanup in Houston’s bayous. The arm will help people who clean the bayous to collect 20 garbage trucks’ worth of plastic bags per year, O’Malley said. “We are trying to design this arm that helps people collect this trash a lot more easily just because there’s way too much of it.”
After Rice, O’Malley is planning to pursue a career in product design. “Something that I would like to design tackles the drought issues in California,” she said. “It’s basically to make this pump that recycles wastewater in peoples’ homes so they can reuse water they’ve barely used.”
The Hippo Riders team of Rice engineering students has created a horse simulator for use by hippotherapy patients. From left: Amy Ryu, Erik Hansen, Jaime Gomez and Brett Berger. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
Some patients who could benefit from hippotherapy might not have access to a horse, due to geographic location, weather or affordability. Rice University engineering students have developed an alternative with their horse simulator, a robotic steed that can be ridden indoors anytime.
A team of students calling themselves the Hippo Riders created their device as a senior capstone design project at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. The device will be demonstrated at the university’s annual Engineering Design Showcase April 14.
The simulator could give patients who use hippotherapy – also known as equine-assisted therapy — more opportunities to follow a regimen intended to help those with neurological or physical disorders like autism, arthritis, cerebral palsy and other ailments. The rhythmic, swinging motion is thought to enhance balance, coordination and motor development.
“It really does engage your core muscles and the ability to balance, and that’s what helps people,” said Amy Ryu, a mechanical engineering major.
“And it’s fun,” added teammate Jaime Gomez, also a mechanical engineer, after five minutes in the saddle.
Jaime Gomez tests the horse simulator. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
The robust prototype built with $1,200 in parts and a lot of labor began with help from Conroe-area physical therapist Janis Wells, who found her way to Rice through her work with team sponsors Harrell and Carolyn Huff. Carolyn is a Rice alumna.
“Janis was my physical therapist,” Harrell Huff said. “One day we were talking and I said, ‘Isn’t it expensive to have a horse and all this stuff? Why don’t y’all go to a bar and borrow one of those bucking broncos?’
“She said they can’t do that, so I said, ‘Would it be to your advantage to have a mechanical device that would substitute for a horse?’ I told her I knew a group that could probably design one.”
Wells told the team she wanted a way for patients to ride indoors during inclement weather or when the cost of reserving a horse was a factor. Ryu said physical therapy sessions with a horse can cost up to $150 an hour.
The resulting device differs from mechanical bulls and kiddie rides at supermarkets in the degree of control offered by three motors that can be programmed to operate independently and simulate a variety of gentle gaits.
“We can control the voltage and current output,” said Brett Berger, also a mechanical engineering major. “That lets us run a complicated control program for different motions.
“In the ride outside a grocery store, you put a quarter in and it moves back and forth a little bit,” he said. “But in our device, we can control the speed, the intensity and the type of gait, all routed through a microcontroller.”
“Because the motors are independently controllable, we can exert a huge degree of control over how the horse is moving,” added Erik Hansen, the team’s lone bioengineering major.
Amy Ryu and Erik Hansen make an adjustment to their robotic horse. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
The simulator can safely hold patients weighing up to 250 pounds, said the team members, who were advised by Rice engineering lecturer Matthew Elliott. “We designed it statically to hold much more than 250 pounds, and it won’t break until it goes up to 1,000-plus pounds,” Berger said. “But at 250 pounds, the motors stall. It’s just going to stop moving. The machine won’t continue, but it won’t break down.”
Motorized scissor lifts control the saddle height for each rider.
The students expect a new team of electrical engineering and computer science students will pick up the project next year and advance the control system to a more sophisticated level.
“We had to learn on the job how to weld, how to machine and how to build,” Berger said, noting that some computer programming was required as well. “But we don’t have the level of controllability we think our device is capable of. Moving forward, we expect another team will take it to the next level so that a physical therapist can use it in a clinic.”
“That’s going to require a more sophisticated control scheme than we have had time to learn how to do,” Hansen added. “A future team could get it to be like a horse walking through different kinds of obstacles or terrain.”
But the decorative, neighing hobby-horse head had better stay. Installing it was just too hard for the team to resist.
It’s good for crops, it’s good for water and, in the end, it’s good for people and the planet. Why would anyone not turn food waste into compost?
Rice University engineering students asked that question at the start of the school year and have spent the months since refining their answer.
The team known as (com)post-haste invented a device that sits under one’s sink and takes macerated food waste produced by a standard garbage disposal and sends it in one direction while liquid waste (including water) goes in another. Effectively, it simplifies the process of recycling garbage into a useful product while helping to protect water supplies.
The students make up one of more than 80 capstone design teams at Rice. Most senior engineering students are required to complete a project to graduate and are presented with a host of possibilities when they begin their classes in August.
For all the members of (com)post-haste, developing the device they call The BioBlend was a natural.
“I think for all of us this was the top choice,” said Kavana Gowda, who like all of her teammates is a senior mechanical engineering student. Other members are Christina Petlowany, Andrew Miller, Edgar Silva, Mitch Torczon and Ryan Yeh.
Rice University engineering students have invented a device to separate compostable materials from food waste processed by a garbage disposal. From left, Ryan Yeh, Christina Petlowany, Edgar Silva, Andrew Miller, Mitch Torczon and Kavana Gowda. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
The students have spent much of the last eight months working in the basement of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, where they have installed an actual research kitchen – or at least the sink part.
The project is a partnership with NASA, which has an interest in such devices for outposts on the moon, Mars and beyond, and Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, which pitched Rice on the project and intends to install The BioBlend at its Living Lab, where it will be tested alongside other emerging household technologies. Rice lecturer Matthew Elliott is the team’s faculty adviser.
“I think one of the major barriers to being eco-friendly in a variety of ways in the United States is people aren’t willing to put in any effort,” said Torczon of the device. “This doesn’t require users to change their behaviors. They can continue putting food down the garbage disposal, and once every couple of days take it out, just like taking out their trash.”
The difference is The BioBlend produces a moist, finely chopped form of waste that takes less time to turn to compost than regular garbage. Alternately, it can be used to generate biogas.
“One of the things our sponsors want to see is if they can make the device large enough to put in the basement of an apartment complex or a grocery store or restaurant, places with a ton of food waste,” Torczon said. “They could create a lot of biogas they could then turn around and sell or, if they’re in a restaurant, use themselves.”
“I think a family of four, using a biogas generator with their waste, would be able to make enough for them to cook with,” Gowda added.
Mechanical engineering student Andrew Miller makes an adjustment to The BioBlend prototype. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
Whether it’s used for compost or biogas production, the key to The BioBlend’s success will be its ability to keep garbage out of wastewater treatment plants, where it’s not only useless but also costly and complicated to remove.
The team’s research into separation techniques spanned sewage plants to hand-cranked tabletop devices for making jellies and tomato sauce. What they had in common was a circular strainer with a large screw in the middle that pushes solid waste along while allowing liquid to escape. Their own motor-driven, spring-loaded version has a failsafe to keep unwanted solids like ice from jamming the system.
A weight sensor tracks how full the bin is, a cutoff switch automatically trips before it overflows and a carbon filter helps quash odors and keep flies away from the compost.
The team has not ruled out giving The BioBlend Wi-Fi powers to alert users to its status via the Internet, Torczon said. They could just make it beep when full, but the students are wary that annoyed users would simply disconnect it rather than keep with the program.
The teammates had no problem finding a way to feed their creation. “One of the cool things about the project was digging once a week through the trash in the Rice serveries,” Yeh said.
“It’s caused me to reevaluate how much food I’m throwing away,” Torczon added. “Our sponsors said at the beginning they hoped it influenced our behavior.”
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