Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Student engineers create easily accessible exercise machines

exercise machines

Dorothy Clark, who has suffered for years from bad knees, tested a custom-made stationary bike crafted by, from left, Kelly Gibson, Harmony Zeller and Brian Joyce. PHOTO BY: Wayne Armstrong.

Professional engineers solve problems in the real world. At the University of Denver, so do student engineers.

Students working with DU engineering assistant professors Kim Newman and Irvin Jones cap their bachelor’s degree with a foray into that real world, tackling the real problems facing disabled people through engineered solutions.

“Anyone can build something in their garage, but knowing what you want for an outcome by analyzing the problems, studying all of the potential outcomes, working with the customer, that’s engineering,” senior David Muecke says. 

Last year’s seniors, now scattered across the country in the working world, toiled down to the final moments of their college careers making last minute adjustments and getting everything just right before Newman and Jones put their devices to the test.

A new way of thinking

The results represent some new ways of thinking in the field of medical engineering. One group of students tackled the challenge of creating oversized and easily accessible exercise machines for people who are seriously overweight or who suffer from limited mobility. The devices had to be both easy to use and sturdy enough to handle patients weighting up to 500 pounds.

Local health care providers worked with the University to identify patients who needed help. The students conducted interviews then got to work, doing everything from the initial design to actual metal fabrication. They created a custom leg exerciser that simulates the traditional leg-press and squat workout without straining delicate knees and hips. The finished device let patients lean back on a padded bench while controlling resistance through a pneumatic device.

A second team produced a stationary bike that’s easy for a larger person to get on. It incorporates a custom-made electronic resistance module that guarantees the smooth, precise resistance control important to a patient with damaged joints.

Another group of students, including Muecke, engineered devices that help people who use wheel chairs or suffer from limited leg mobility get in and out of bed more easily. Using pneumatic assists, the devices allow a patient to sit on the edge of his or her bed, then gently lifts their legs onto the bed.

Muecke took what he learned on the project, and his DU engineering degree, straight to the medical device development company Boston Scientific. 

From paper to product

Newman says she’s proud of the work the students produced in the first year of  her new class, and she pushes them hard. With the help of a National Science Foundation grant of $75,000, the professor says the course — Bioengineering Systems Design — incorporates multiple engineering disciplines and challenges students with a project that puts everything they’ve learned on paper to work in real situations. The project, now in its second year, continues this fall as a new crop of students meet with Denver-area medical professionals and their patients.

No matter how much work goes into each project, from client interviews to production, there is no substitute for engineering success, and Newman demanded that the devices actually function. With days left before final testing last May the student tinkered down to the final hours.

Testing day came, and patient Dorothy Clark volunteered to try out the exercise equipment. With troublesome knees, Clark says she’s tried for years to get the exercise her doctor wants her to get, but even walking can be a struggle. Using standard gym equipment has been out of the question, either focusing too much strain on damaged parts or being just too difficult to get in and out of, she says.

“Oh, this is smooth,” she said, smiling as she tested a recumbent exercise bike. “I feel like I can keep going, and I don’t feel like I’m going to get hurt.”

In a few moments she was perspiring but not willing to give up.

“I didn’t even realize I was working that hard,” she said, laughing.

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