Rose-Hulman senior projects look beyond grade

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COATESVILLE, Ind. (AP) — He had once been just like them.

For the first time in their college careers, these students at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology were focused on class work aimed at improving someone's life, his life — not just a grade.

An A would be nice, of course. But if they could get their biomedical engineering design projects to work, they might help the man in the wheelchair wearing a Rose-Hulman shirt to achieve big goals:

To someday, maybe, walk and talk again.

The stakes rose higher than anything they had done before in computer programs, in classrooms with rows of desks, in multiple-choice tests.

Never before had their schoolwork Skyped with them, invited them over and made them dinner.

Before his car accident in 2008, Rose-Hulman football player Drew Christy would have been one of the students poring over ideas. Instead, wracked by a traumatic brain injury, he has become their inspiration.

This year, four senior capstone projects at the college sought to invent assisted technology devices to boost Drew's therapy sessions.

Most of them targeted ways to help Drew with his therapeutic horseback riding at Hope Haven Horse Farm in Coatesville, where he works to improve his balance and strengthen his muscles.

But it wasn't as simple as getting the wires to connect and the electronics to click.

"We thought we knew what we wanted," 21-year-old senior Kristen Schackmann told The Indianapolis Star ( ).

Her group came up with an idea for an everyday device to remind Drew to keep his head up. His lanky body crumples and slouches in his wheelchair, because of his weakened muscles.

A sensor attached to headphones was supposed to cut off music from his beloved iPod when his head sank too low. To get back to the music, he would have to lift his head.

But the initial design wasn't portable, so Drew wouldn't be able to take it around in his wheelchair.

"We had the whole idea wrong," she said. "We really saw what Drew's life was like, and how it could have an impact."

If their project could ease life for Drew, it could also help others with physical disabilities.

So they went back to the drawing board.

His dad lifts him onto the horse, but Drew is tired.

His muscles spent the winter working with robotics to help him walk. He isn't used to the strength it takes to keep his caved shoulders up.

His head dips low, so low that he doesn't wear a helmet because he wouldn't be able to see. When he first started lessons at Hope Haven, a cushy Nerf ball covered the saddle horn so he wouldn't bump his head.

But the movement of the horse's four-beat gait underneath him activates many of the same muscles used for walking. It gives his debilitated body the feeling of his hips rolling forward with the horses, his balance shifting on the turns, his shoulders and stomach holding him upright and his feet pressing into the stirrups.

Riding offered so many mobility benefits, building both endurance and strength. But Hope Haven's instructors wondered how they could work with Drew more productively than manually noticing, pointing out and adjusting his posture.

That task fell to the students — many of whom had never ridden a horse before.

But their scientific minds have no limits. They dreamed up "crazy ideas that would never work," as 22-year-old senior Daniel Maginot explains — and then they figured out how to make them actually work.

For his project, Maginot created a metal horse head for riders to practice handling reins and see how horses would respond to a subtle shift in pull. He zeroed in on how to model the vertebrae of the horse's neck, but just as genius was a move to lighten the metal panels by hacking holes through the sides.

Melissa Montgomery, 23, salvaged an old washing machine motor to power her mechanical horse simulator. Riding on the simulator allows instructors to easily observe clients and warms up the riders before they get on the full-size animal.

She tried running the mechanics with belts — like car engines — then swapped them out for chains, like those on bicycles.

Lauren Meadows, 23, upgraded a therapeutic saddle with handlebars with an adjustable back rest and a cushion against the horse's back.

Back at school in Terre Haute, they tinkered with trial-and-error. For all their frustrations over what didn't work, they were reminded that waiting for them was "an individual who looks at these students with hope in their eyes and a need," as associate professor Renee Rogge put it.

"When you make a design decision, it affects people," she said. "You can say that all day in the classroom, but when they see the effects, and they have to make the decisions for someone, it definitely makes them think through it. They really do get more involved."

"It gives them a feeling of what being an engineer really means to them."

This was all Drew's mother's idea.

Between mom Debbi Christy and Christy Menke, the owner of Hope Haven, the energy behind these projects is boundless.

It's the second year of the Rose-Hulman partnership with Drew and Hope Haven, but both Drew's mom and Menke run constant wish lists of new doodads and gizmos for future generations of students to invent.

Menke firmly and passionately believes that the Rose-Hulman projects could transform the therapeutic riding industry by collecting biofeedback from the unconventional riders.

"We could measure how we're doing," Menke said. "How good are we teaching?"

It's not just Drew who benefits. A Hope Haven client with cerebral palsy finds the simulator relaxes her tightly clenched and coiled body. Another improves his balance with devices that provide back support and monitor the weight he puts on his feet in the stirrups.

Menke and her staff, self-described as "a little off-kilter of traditional," are remarkably and unrelentingly upbeat about the potential of the Rose-Hulman projects. At the farm, hope is palpable and optimism untempered, as though anything else would cause the barn walls to come crashing down.

They tested the horse simulator until they broke it, gleefully nicknaming it "Xanny" for its Xanax-like calming effect.

And then its inventor, Montgomery, built it back up, better than ever.

She created Xanny last year, her senior year in college, and stayed on to continue the project as a graduate student, focusing her master's thesis on her Hope Haven work.

In project-lingo, the person who benefits is the "end user" or the "client." But what the Rose-Hulman students tell Menke is: Oh, no. This will work. It has to work. It has to work — for Drew.

"He's still a researcher," Debbi Christy says of Drew. But now his job is to test others' ideas.

There is no telling what Drew, now 26, could be capable of. He has improved enormously over the years, his mother said, starting to regain some independence from his need for constant care after the accident.

His car skidded on his way home from school one February night his sophomore year, sliding off the icy road and slamming into a tree.

His family didn't know if he would ever wake from a months-long coma. They didn't know what the traumatic brain injury had touched and what it had spared.

Drew still has a sense of humor and a discerning taste in therapists. He still likes to show off in front of girls. He loves baseball hats and Rose-Hulman red.

"He was a Rose-Hulman student like you all," his mom tells the students. "He had big dreams, big goals."

"We want them to see: Everything you do has a very big purpose," Debbi Christy says. "It's not just a project on your desk or your computer. It's not just a metal unit that they've built. It's not just plastic and electrodes, but it's going to help him achieve his big goals."

At the beginning of the year, she searches the eager faces of the students who are about to help her son. She looks for something familiar — that determination — and wonders which one of them is most like Drew.


Information from: The Indianapolis Star,

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