Engineering Students Go Beyond the Books to Assist Massachusetts Girl

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Last spring, biomedical engineering students Kevin Franzino, Jeffrey Peterson, and Kelly O’Neill often found themselves working late into the night on a very special project.

Fueled by pizza and coffee brought in by a supportive parent, the trio worked into the early morning, pushing the limits of their engineering knowledge and skills to plot, design, and build three pieces of customized equipment for a little girl from Boston, then 3 years old.

The girl, Samantha Gillard, has Rett syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system that occurs mostly in females and can limit a child’s mobility, speech, and cognitive development.

The students were introduced to Samantha through her grandmother, Jane Gillard, a program assistant at UConn’s Nayden Rehabilitation Clinic in the Neag School of Education. Gillard had heard about UConn’s biomedical engineering program, in which seniors tackle real-world problems and create innovative devices to fulfill their graduation requirements, and she wondered whether the students might be able to help Samantha.

Gillard refers to her granddaughter as ‘a sunny kid,’ and the engineering students recall being drawn to Samantha the moment they met her.

“Sam is very social. She likes people and she loves going to school, where she is well-liked by her peers and teachers alike,” says her father Geoff Gillard, a laboratory scientist at Harvard.

Geoff and his wife, Jenny, say they are grateful for the students’ efforts. The family members hike and ski in the mountains of New Hampshire in their free time, activities Samantha can now also enjoy with her new gifts from UConn.

After speaking with the family and meeting Samantha, the students decided to design and build for her a customized chair, a personalized ski sled, and a remote-controlled, battery-powered car. The students say the equipment gives Samantha a degree of freedom she never had before.

While similar devices are available commercially, the students modified their designs so the equipment Samantha received was tailored to her specific needs.

“We use her chair every day for a variety of functions,” Geoff Gillard says. “It fits everything we asked for and more.”

Peterson, one of the student designers, says, “The assistive skiing device is essentially a stroller on skis with a hinge that replicates the articulation of the knee. It allows the device to stand up and sit down on chair lifts.” Peterson has since graduated and is now pursuing a master’s in biomedical engineering.

And as for the battery-powered car, Jane Gillard says Samantha could not be happier.

“It’s great. It’s screaming pink. The car has room for two kids,” she says. “It’s remote-controlled, so her parents can control it for her. She loves it. It makes her smile. She grins like crazy.”

The car includes a five-point restraint harness to ensure Samantha’s safety.

The family first used the finished products at the School of Engineering’s Senior Design Demonstration Day, an annual event held in Gampel Pavilion at the end of the academic year. It was a moment the family and the students will remember for some time.

“The day of the fair, Geoff was just learning to navigate the car, so Sammy was all over Gampel,” Jane Gillard recalls. “People were laughing and cheering.”

“Seeing Samantha at Senior Design Day was absolutely the most rewarding part of the project,” says O’Neill, who graduated with a biomedical engineering degree and currently does clinical research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “We were able to apply our knowledge base to implement a solution to a real-world problem and physically see the results.”

“Every project has a real world function,” says engineering professor John Enderle, who oversaw UConn’s biomedical engineering program for more than 20 years before stepping down from the post last year. “Many of our students elect to get valuable work experience by working on a design project with local companies.”

As a result of their Senior Design involvement, quite a few UConn seniors are offered jobs by their company sponsors before graduation. Assistant Professor Donald Peterson currently serves as the biomedical engineering program’s interim director.

Other projects UConn students have developed include digital hearing aids, assistive learning devices, and environmental control systems for individuals with disabilities. The equipment is given to the clients free of charge.

Franzino says he opted for an adaptive devices project because that was where his interests lie. “The whole reason I elected to study biomedical engineering was for the opportunity to design and create parts that would help people,” says Franzino, who graduated in May 2011 with a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering.

O’Neill says that despite the hard work and long nights, the senior design project was the most memorable experience of her college career: “Being able to present the Gillards with projects that would make a difference in their day-to-day lives and seeing how thrilled they were was the best feeling of my undergraduate career.”