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Students design exercise machines for overweight people

Patient on stationary bike

Dorothy Clark tests a stationary bike crafted by students (from left) Kelly Gibson, Harmony Zeller and Brian Joyce. Photo: 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.

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 and 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 wheelchairs 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.

With the help of a National Science Foundation grant of $75,000, Newman 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.

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 because it either focuses too much strain on damaged parts or is 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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