Designing Education

Nancy Ridgeway
July 14, 2015

Senior projects by two groups of mechanical engineering students may lead to a valuable learning tool in the classroom for Bradley’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program.

An elbow spasticity simulator replicates motions found in patients with spasticity, a neurological disorder that occurs in people with brain or spinal cord injuries and in those with neuromuscular diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. One group created the simulator while a sister team developed a slip-on sleeve that can be used to measure arm motion in patients with spasticity so movements can be better replicated in the simulator.

The simulator is the brainchild of physical therapy professor Dr. Steve Tippett, who observed that only about half of his students are seeing patients diagnosed with spasticity during their clinical work.

“It’s very difficult for a normal person to simulate spasticity,” he said. “Students can understand it on paper, but they have an ‘aha moment’ when they feel it.”

Tippett approached mechanical engineering professor and senior project coordinator Dr. Martin Morris about the possibility of creating the simulator. Morris brought in Dr. Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Illinois. Hsiao-Wecksler focuses on biomedical muscular-skeletal locomotion, and Emily assisted her with an orthotic for patients with ankle spasticity.

Matt Heinrich, Courtney Mattson, Matt Ramuta and Jacob Stock, all 2015 graduates, built the simulator. The team measuring arm movements included Allison Heil, Kevin Glick, Michelle Cunanan and Grant Colgan. Team advisers were Dr. Jacqueline Henderson and Assistant Dean for Student Success Dr. Julie Reyer.

Tippett and Hsiao-Wecksler met with the students every two weeks throughout the school year for updates on their progress.

“The students were motivated and task-oriented,” Tippett said. “It was neat to see the simulator go from a concept to something that really works.”

The simulator allows physical therapy students to better understand two types of spasticity: cog wheel rigidity, where muscles make cog wheel-like jerks as the limb is extended, and lead pipe rigidity, which has “smooth” rigidity as muscle is stretched.

“The simulator could be brought into the classroom now. The students even wrote a user’s manual,” said Tippett, who hopes another engineering group will create an air system to increase resistance in the simulator. 

The engineering students enjoyed the real-world experience that their senior project allowed. Mattson, who will study biomedicine in graduate school at the University of Colorado, appreciated the opportunity to interact with clients with cognitive disabilities.

Stock, who secured a job with Innovative Control in Crystal Lake, said, “This was a great learning experience for us. It was a good transition between academics and the work force.”

Discussing the sister team’s project to measure movements, Morris explained, “The team was trying to understand the motion that the physical therapist senses when testing someone with spasticity so they can replicate it on the simulator. They were trying to build a database of these motions.

“The simulator can replicate dozens of motions so every PT student can have the same kind of experience,” he added. “We could program all kinds of motions. The beauty of these projects is they are open-ended, and we can continue to improve upon what these students have done.”