Engineering Students Tackle Real World Problems

By design, students in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineeringget the opportunity to solve engineering problems for real customers during the course of earning an undergraduate degree. Yasmin Ara ’11, a mechanical engineering major who graduated in May, says the hands-on opportunity reinforced what she learned in classes.

Lyle School senior design instructor Nathan Huntoon (left) with alumnus Colin Wood ’11, a member of the student engineering team that helped design the pinch-and-grip strength measurement system at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.

Ara and six other students majoring in computer science, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering worked as a team to design special equipment for Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas. They developed a pinch-and-grip strength measurement system that assesses the hand function of young children. Dallas-based Tess P. White Foundation gave $3,500 to SMU and Texas Scottish Rite for materials to design and build the project during spring 2011.

Texas Scottish Rite is a leading pediatric center for the treatment of musculo-skeletal disorders. Surgeons at Scottish Rite knew that the hands of children under 5 years old were too small for adult-sized equipment that measures a hand’s ability to pinch and grip, says Bill Pierce, senior biomedical engineer at Scottish Rite. The surgeons wanted testing equipment that would measure the grip of children ages 2 to 5 to evaluate the function of normal and abnormal hands, particularly thumbs that are reconstructed surgically.

“Our research department is resourceful at finding solutions to treat kids with really debilitating disorders. If we can’t find an item off the shelf, we have to develop custom devices,” Pierce says. “We’re trying to find a way to quantify the effectiveness of surgery and physical therapy for children with a reconstructed thumb. Functionally, having opposable thumbs for humans is huge. The SMU measuring device gives us some insight into the impact of our treatment.

Pierce showed the SMU student team how to use the machine shop and electronics equipment at the hospital so they could build the system they designed. “This collaboration allowed the hospital to share its needs and capabilities with the engineering program at SMU,” he says.

“I was certainly nervous that whatever we made would actually be used,” says Ara, now an operations research graduate student in Lyle School’s Engineering Management, Information and Systems Department. “I was happy that we were able to complete a real project; it makes your education feel validated.”

The students delivered the device in May, complete with a user’s manual and a presentation to the customer. Scottish Rite is fine-tuning the device, and the surgeons will use it to conduct a significant study.

Pierce says he was pleased with not only the results, but also the process. “This was very cost-effective. A commercial version of such a system sells for approximately $40,000,” he says. “As an engineer who’s been practicing for more than 20 years, I was impressed with how the students worked together as a team composed of different disciplines. That gave me a greater appreciation for SMU’s engineering program.”

Lyle senior design instructor Nathan Huntoon ’09 says the project fulfilled the purpose of engineering. “We spend a lot of time in class teaching students how to interact with customers and to extract what the customers’ problems are,” he says. “Only by solving an actual problem and developing a solution that people will use can the transition from theory to practice be complete.”

Other students on the team were Tanya West, Ceená Hall, Will Laudun, Drew Petersen, Michael Rappaport, Samantha Watkins and Colin Wood, all 2011 graduates.

– Margaret Allen

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