At UNT, the integration of real-world learning experiences into the curriculum has been a long-standing goal. When the biomedical engineering program was launched in 2014, founding department chair Vijay Vaidyanathan was focused on creating a program that would provide students with the best types of learning opportunities for their future careers.
"I don't see my responsibility ending when our students leave here," Vaidyanathan says. "In addition to going to medical schools and graduate schools in biomedical engineering, our students are working in the top biomedical engineering companies in the nation."
He has stories of students working in medical labs, recruiters in search of UNT graduates and alumni in the field getting promotions. Setting students up for success is woven into the program through an emphasis on hands-on experiences like the senior design class, where students conduct a capstone project in the last two semesters before graduation.
Christine Beauchamp, Abby Benefield, Caleb Bouchard and Sophie Zoch are graduating seniors working on a very real-world capstone project. The team is creating an upper-body orthosis for a six-year-old boy who has NUBPL, an extremely rare mitochondrial disease.
"It's really rare — only about 30 people worldwide have the disease. The research is not there at this point as far as curative medicine," Bouchard says. "But we're going to help where we can. The goal is to help him in situations where he loses strength."
This progressive neurodegenerative disease affects children. The patient they are working with loses strength and is too weak to do basic things like lifting and moving his arms, especially when he is sick — even just suffering from a mild cold.
"It started with a meeting with the child's doctor, where she just wanted some kind of device to help the child play," says Beauchamp, the team's leader. "We're designing an upper body orthosis to facilitate arm mobility and trunk support. It takes a lot of effort for him just to use his arms."
Senior Design meets in the Biomedical Maker Space in the state-of-the-art Biomedical Engineering Building, which opened in 2019 at UNT's Discovery Park. The group is using 3D printers there for the construction of the orthosis, which attaches to a vest to provide support even when the patient is not in his wheelchair.
Collaboration is structured as part of the biomedical engineering program. Students are encouraged to take part in a broad range of experiences with they are at UNT, and most have multiple minors.
"We thought this project would be a good fit because Abby and I are mechanical engineering minors and have focuses in biomechanics, and Caleb wants to be an orthopedic surgeon. For 3D printing, there's a huge materials science aspect, and Christine's is in materials science," Zoch says. "We thought we would be really successful in this project."
Benefield is an intern at a medical implant company and brings experience from her work there. Zoch works in a laboratory in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and brings her 3D-printing experience. They are also working to conduct electromyography (EMG) tests and range of motion (ROM) tests using inertial measurement units (IMUs).
They used the lab to conduct baseline testing of the patient's current range of motion and soon will test their prototype to see how his mobility is improved when he is wearing it.
"We're cautiously optimistic. We're hoping that the first protype will work when we test it," Zoch says.
The students have named their group 2nd Player Systems — in honor of the little boy, who is a big fan of video games especially Super Mario Brothers games. One of their stretch goals is to add a hydrographic dip when applying the graphics to the final orthosis to make it look more personalized.
There has been a lot to learn — from obtaining approval from the Institutional Review Board to conduct research with a human subject to learning how to use 3D printers.
"We've learned a lot about how you have to go about the engineering process," Benefield says. "You have to plan ahead in terms of cost and materials and design. How is this going to connect? How is this going to work as a system?"
The stakes for the students are high. The project is a graduation requirement, and they know they will take the learning experience with them into their various career paths. For broader impact, they hope the basic concept will be applied to orthoses for others with muscular function loss, such as stroke patients. But there is one overarching, more important goal.
"We don't want to disappoint this child," Beauchamp says.
It doesn't get any more real-world than that.