Dallas, TX – [A whirring sound is heard.]
Stephen Myers, SMU mechanical engineering student: When you push forward, it pushes the wheel forward; and when you pull back, the rear gearing mechanism forces the wheel forward as well.
Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: SMU senior Stephen Myers, a mechanical engineering student, speaks for the team of five future engineers who've come up with a new wheel mechanism for wheelchairs. The force fin, as they call it, drives the chair forward by pushing and pulling levers attached to each wheel, not from spinning the wheels by hand. It's promising, functional, and could eventually be manufactured, according to Dr. Charles Lovas, engineering professor at Southern Methodist University.
Dr. Charles Lovas, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Southern Methodist University: You get a better mechanical advantage because you have a longer arm to pull the chair with, and it also makes use of more powerful muscles in your body.
Zeeble: The other muscles exercised here are the ones in students' brains. Fresh ideas - from this program - that in recent years have led to items now receiving patents.
Lovas: In almost every case, students work outside the box. They're not constrained like a lot of older adults like us. They come up with some very creative ideas. Most of them are of that nature.
Zeeble: Kent Waldrep is impressed with the wheel mechanism. In 1974 he lost all feeling from his waist down after suffering a spinal cord injury on the football field. He was a running back for Texas Christian University. He now runs the Kent Waldrep National Paralysis Foundation, which created and helps fund this five year old student program. Waldrep has used a manual wheelchair for decades.
Kent Waldrep, President, Kent Waldrep National Paraylsis Foundation: I've been in a chair now 26 years. Hopefully research will get me out, but I'm starting to feel muscle fatigue now that I didn't feel 10 years ago. This device makes it that much easier to push a wheelchair. Some with pain now maybe can be pain-free; others in electronic chairs maybe can move to a manual. That has real financial implications.
Zeeble: At the beginning of the semester, students are told of needs in the disabled community, then try to meet those needs with inventions. Waldrep says it puts the students in direct contact with real clients. They might not encounter the disabled otherwise, and they learn their education can really make a difference. Occupational Therapist Stephanie Bergman, who sits on the National Paralysis board that evaluates these projects, says it also introduces future engineers to the health care field.
Stephanie Bergman, Occupational Therapist: I don't thnk engineers look there. They look at Lucent or NASA or Ford or microwaves or whatever, but the disabled are really left out on their own. This class presents a whole new spectrum of the population that's not being marketed to and is untapped and just left.
Zeeble: Bergman says this program also results in real prototypes. That's a lot different, she adds, than presenting an idea to a company that may do nothing at all, or which may typically say it cannot be done. For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.