Biomedical engineering undergrads expect to spend a large chunk of their education working on products that solve real-world medical problems. From admission to the department all the way through to graduation, they take a series of design courses that help them apply a suite of skills and knowledge necessary for devising solutions to challenges that come up daily in the world of medicine. Often, they draw on some fairly disparate—and seemingly unrelated—fields.
For example, why would they need to know how the precision of gyroscopes of a Segway might be affected by the regulations governing a hospital operating room? What could quality woodworking have to do with a device that offers comfortable in-home patient care for a child with cerebral palsy? “Most of the time, engineering isn’t a straight line,” says Biomedical Engineering Senior Lecturer Mitch Tyler. “You have to learn to draw from different places and different sources in order to synthesize something new and relevant to the problem you’re dealing with.”
Tyler says textbooks and problem sets can only offer a finite number of opportunities for students to test their problem-solving skills. In contrast, BME design courses get students out of their comfort zone and enable them to become more interdisciplinary, more resourceful and more well-rounded engineers.
In addition, real-world design challenges offer students a chance to experience the human, business and practical constraints that just aren’t present in “on-paper” homework.
The human side of engineering
Design projects challenge each student’s experience level in engineering and biology, but some present unique emotional and personal challenges as well. John and Melanie Patterson—a pair of ’98 UW-Madison grads now raising a family in Oregon, Wisconsin—issued such a challenge to BME students by asking if they could make part of the daily routine with their 8-year-old son Marc a little bit easier on their backs. Marc has cerebral palsy and requires diapering, but as he has grown, lifting him up to change him has become more and more taxing for the family. “He’s well over 50 pounds,” says John Patterson. “Even though we try to stay in good physical health, the repetitive strain was starting to take its toll on our backs.”
The challenge? Create a changing table for Marc that not only supports his disabilities, but fits into the Pattersons’ lives in such a way that they don’t feel his bedroom is filled with hospital equipment. “We don’t want this giant hunk of metal constantly reminding us that Marc has special needs,” says John. “As a family, I think it’s more important to focus on what he’s able to do and what his abilities are, rather than what he can’t do.”
The design problem—essentially, how to safely and comfortably lift a person—wasn’t especially complicated. But serving the very personal needs of a client offered invaluable insight for Ben Smith, Lisle Blackbourn, Brett Napiwocki and Michael Kapitz, the biomedical engineering sophomores (now juniors) tasked with filling the Pattersons’ request. “We had a responsibility to represent the program as far as making something that was safe and reliable, something that would definitely work for them,” says Smith. “I figured it was something we could do well.”
While most currently available products that would suit the Pattersons’ needs also looked very clinical, Smith and his team took to heart the family’s desire for something that looked like it belonged in a home. By placing a pneumatic scissor-lift inside two interlocking wooden boxes, the team created a handcrafted changing table that doubles as a padded storage bench.
The result is equally as functional as the clinical products, but suited the Pattersons’ needs better than they could have hoped. “It seems simple, but having something like the table, which looks nice in the room but is still functional for him without signifying ‘this boy has disabilities,’ is pretty awesome,” says John.
A crash course in inventing
The value of experience—in this case, experience with the design constraints of real-world clients—has been the guiding philosophy since the first biomedical design courses were taught in 1998. “It’s the synthesis of all of their hands-on experience, prior art, coursework and just-in-time learning,” says Tyler.
The six-course biomedical engineering design sequence has been a cornerstone of the BME undergraduate curriculum since the department formed in 1999. But the students’ designs don’t gather dust on a shelf. BME students have filed at least 80 patent disclosures for devices and concepts—ranging from keyboard sanitization systems to protective hydrogels for thermal ablation procedures—that started as design projects.
The BME design courses become a valuable springboard for enterprising students to make their first leap into entrepreneurship, as well. “They’re really going from an academic exercise at the beginning of the six-semester sequence to something that could potentially be commercialized,” says Tyler.
Anthony Sprangers, Alexander Johnson, Patrick Cassidy and Sean Heyrman—the students developing a protective hydro-dissection fluid for thermal ablation—have been pursuing a commercial product since wrapping up initial work on the project last spring. “We were at a pretty good point where we wanted to continue it—we felt that it had some potential,” says Sprangers.
The students’ product, which makes thermal tumor ablation safer for patients by providing a gel-like barrier to protect surrounding organs and tissue, has already earned the team accolades. The students took third place in the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance 2011 BME Start Competition for Undergraduates, and more recently, they took second place for undergraduates in the Collegiate Inventors Competition, which came with $10,000 to further develop a marketable product.
Their success is well earned, but they acknowledge that being able to consult with their client, Biomedical Engineering and Radiology Assistant Professor Chris Brace, and their advisor, Biomedical Engineering Associate Faculty Associate John Puccinelli, during their BME design coursework played a tremendous role in getting the team to where it is now. ”They each have inventions of their own that they’ve tailored into products,” says Johnson. “I think having them as a resource is great for that, too.”
The thrill of a challenge
Biomedical Engineering Associate Faculty Associate Amit Nimunkar is working with another BME design team eager to leverage its advisor’s experience. After losing their first project mid-semester when their client found a commercially available solution to his problem, the five seniors—James Madsen, Bret Olson, Justin Cacciatore, Blake Marzella and Michael Konrath—were eager to get moving on a prototype for their new project.
Their client, an orthopedic surgeon who lost the use of his legs in a 2011 accident, asked the students to find a way for him to return to the operating room for standing surgeries. The team proposed a four-wheeled motorized platform with controls precise enough to safely support the client as he moves around the operating room.
Minor hurdles only seem to energize the students—and as seniors, they feel more than prepared for their design challenge. “In previous projects, I’ve worked in SolidWorks and MATLAB and all these different computer programs that have helped me build my skills,” says Madsen. “Now it’s all paying off, because I can use my SolidWorks abilities to create a better design, or do these calculations in MATLAB that maybe I couldn’t have done as a 200-level student.”
But the gravity of the solution they’re developing is not lost on the students, either. “This is a guy’s livelihood, and it’s going to be used in a place where, if something goes wrong, it can not only hurt him, it could hurt other people,” says Michael Konrath. “Everything we do has to be checked against calculations, really accurate design—it’s a real product.”
The frustration of working against the clock or of working with clients who have unusual expectations and requests might seem daunting, but Tyler says it’s rare that students aren’t up to the challenge. “These are extremely bright, highly capable young people who are exceptionally well-motivated, resourceful, diligent and capable of handling challenges beyond what they think they can,” says Tyler. “Far from being a burden, the added pressure of working on projects with real-world implications becomes especially rewarding for the biomedical engineering students who find themselves under the gun.”
Watch a video about the changing table project here.