Skip to:

Office of the Chancellor Communications

TTU engineering students provide custom assistive technology to area children

Submitted by: 
Tennessee Tech University

For the 15th year in a row, mechanical engineering students in professor Stephen Canfield’s class have designed assistive technology for community children just in time for the holidays.

Every semester, teams of his students are paired with children with special needs from the community. They meet with the family to investigate how to accommodate the child’s need with personalized technology. Many of the children are younger than nine years old.

This month, eight teams of mechanical engineering students delivered the assistive devices they designed and built to the families in need.

“Too often schoolwork feels like it is preparing us for tomorrow without really affecting anything today,” said senior Matthew Powelson, of Taft. “This project has been a great opportunity to apply the skills we have learned and do something that has an impact now.”

One team of students focused on a significant height difference between the water fountain and the classroom table at the school of Makenna Bilrey, a five-year old with spina bifida. They purchased a manual wheelchair and modified it with an electric motor so that the child can raise and lower herself to bring things like classroom tables, water fountains and coat hooks within reach.

“Getting to work on a project that will benefit a family and make Makenna's experience at school better is a great thing,” said junior Vance Bogard, of Church Hill. “As a team we all agree that working for a family is much more motivating and rewarding than working for a grade.”

The student team presented the wheelchair to the young girl at Stone Elementary in Crossville. They explained their steps to the child’s class and helped her use the chair in different locations around the school.

The team consisted of senior Justin Waldo, of Grandview; senior Crestin Burke, of Oneida; senior Abanoub Riyad, of Franklin; junior Will Ripley, of Knoxville; and Vance Bogard.

“I can’t wait for her to discover all the new things she can do,” said kindergarten teacher Nicole Graham. “Because this school accommodates children through the eighth grade, some of the facilities are built for bigger kids. It’s wonderful to see her able to do so much more.”

Another team developed an adjustable rowing bike for special education students at Cookeville High to exercise. The previous bikes, shared among students, were exhausting to operate, so TTU students developed an adjustable bike that provides momentum with both a forward and backward stroke.

“Our biggest challenge was a drivetrain,” said Powelson. “We totally scrapped the old bike’s drivetrain, took it all the way out, and had to redesign and install something completely different. It involved chopping up the old frame and widening it to accommodate our design, so much of it was a redesign from the ground up.”

The team consisted of TTU seniors William Schenk, of Knoxville; Derrick Davis, of Bell Buckle; Riley Collins, of Kingston; and Chimezirim Ibe-Ekeocha, of Lanham, Missouri; and Powelson.

The redesigned bike is 20 pounds lighter and features a more comfortable riding position, with footrests and an adjustable seat that slides on a track to accommodate different-sized riders.

Since 1999, Canfield estimates that approximately 2,000 students have completed more than 250 projects. All projects are supported in part by the special education division of the Tennessee Department of Education.

Other projects included a modified crawler to develop infant motor skills, an adapted ATV for a two year old unable to use his right arm and a sensory toy for a nearly blind eight year old.

“I’d say about half of the mechanical engineering students have participated in this project at some point,” said Canfield. “A lot of them are looking for ways that they can make an impact immediately, and this project allows them that chance.”