It’s one thing to complete a school project for a grade. It’s something totally different to complete a school project that can change a person’s life.

A group of engineering students at Tennessee Tech did both during the fall semester.

Megan Wesemann, Stephen De Troye, Shelby Kilgore, Dayro Martinez, and Christopher Gray created a custom-made hybrid spinal support to help a little girl with cerebral palsy. The project was part of the Early Intervention and Mechanical Engineering program which pairs engineering students (from ME 3610) with families with children with special needs in the Upper Cumberland region to design assistive devices to help with feeding, mobility, play, and other normal developmental activities.

“This project is an exemplary, but not unusual, demonstration of the skills and capabilities of our TTU engineering students,” said mechanical engineering professor Stephen Canfield. “There were 17 similar projects in the EIME program this past semester alone by TTU engineering students to help children and families in our Upper Cumberland region. These students bring creativity, skill, energy and caring to help these families. These projects provide assistive solutions for special children and families that simply would not be available otherwise. These projects are very important to the development and growth of these children.”

This particular project that Wesemann, De Troye, Kilgore, Martinez and Gray worked on was for a little girl named Miracle, who was born 15 weeks premature with brain bleeds and CP. Because Miracle has little mobility or trunk support, the family was having a hard time feeding and bathing her.

“We sat down and the students asked what they could do to help our family,” said Miracle’s mother, Ashley Steakley. “We were anxious and super appreciative of what we were going to get done.”

The team began their project at the beginning of the fall semester and quickly developed numerous potential designs. They created a custom-made hybrid spinal support with more rigid spine support and custom-molded torso support. Their design incorporated this hybrid spinal support system into a mobile base to help Miracle learn to walk. The team consulted with several orthopedic surgeons and performed detailed engineering analysis prior to fabrication and testing.

“The students find great reward in helping the families on the projects,” said Canfield. “I can see it in the amount of time they spend on the project and attention to detail in fabricating and delivering the results. This is true for all my students, even the ones who are not the best test takers, or maybe are not the most punctual on homework, put in way more effort on the project. They clearly are motivated to help others.”

When the project was complete, the students drove more than an hour to Miracle’s home to deliver their creation one day prior to her first birthday. After spending almost two hours of tweaking and adjustments, the orthopedic spine fit Miracle perfectly and the results were exactly what everyone had hoped for.

“We couldn’t be happier,” said Steakley. “Watching her little face as she has learned to move herself and sit up independently, it’s truly better than we could have ever expected.”

Once Miracle was comfortable with the orthopedic spine, she was placed in a gait trainer that allowed her feet to touch the ground and move around independently.

“She seems to like it a lot and it holds her in place. It worked out really great,” said De Troye, a junior mechanical engineering major from Johnson City. “This is something that the family is going to get to use for years and actually impacts a child’s life.”

The experience not only touched Miracle and her family, but the students as well.

“I am so appreciative. It is astounding and life-changing to see how this affects her life,” said Wesemann, a junior mechanical engineering major from Morristown. “This is what I want to do for my life. I want to design different products for people with disabilities and help them for the best.”

“My mom is in the medical field, so helping people is something I’ve always wanted to do,” echoed Kilgore, a senior mechanical engineering major from Dunlap. “It’s cool to see it going from the designer style of it and then actually seeing it help a kid is crazy. I like it a lot.”

Students involved in the EIME program often report to Canfield that the project is the most important part of their semester despite all the work that it requires. Many students identify the project as a key to their selection or continuing engineering and helps direct their career choices.

“I always thought we would build a robot that would move a ball or something like that,” said Kilgore. “To see it actually help a kid’s life versus just a project to just make something is really neat.”

For more information on this project, go to: http://ttu-eime.csc.tntech.edu/index.php/Mobility_toy.

For more information on the EIME program, go to: http://ttu-eime.csc.tntech.edu/index.php/Main_Page.