Jan. 21, 1999 Thanks to a team of four engineering freshmen at Northwestern University's Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, a 57-year-old burn victim is playing tennis again.
As she recovered from a devastating house fire and surgery that took most of her right hand, Iris Miller's biggest concern was whether she would ever get back on the tennis court.
Last April, two years after the fire, she contacted the McCormick School for advice. She wound up being the client of a team of four freshmen who were looking for a class project.
Those students designed and built for her a custom prosthetic device -- a specialized wrist strap that allows her to wield a tennis racket and again play the game she had so enjoyed for 20 years.
It isn't unusual that freshmen work with real clients. That began at Northwestern two years before, as part of a radical redesign of undergraduate engineering education in the McCormick School. Called Engineering First, the new program gets students thinking creatively as engineers, rather than analytically as scientists, as they learn the fundamentals of math, physics, chemistry and computer science.
One member of the team of faculty who developed Engineering First is Edward Colgate, associate professor of mechanical engineering. His Engineering Design and Communications class, which is taught jointly by engineering faculty and instructors from Northwestern's Writing Program, introduces freshmen to teamwork, project management and engineering ethics. Student teams design something and build it as they communicate with a real client throughout the process.
For projects, Colgate solicits real problems from the local community -- schools or charitable organizations that don't have engineering staffs. The past two years students have worked with area grade schools designing playground systems and storage lockers; others worked with a charitable organization designing toys for children with motor deficits. But working with a patient had never been tried before.
When Miller first contacted Colgate about her desire to play tennis again, he had reservations that this was a realistic goal for a freshman project.
"Working with Iris was one of the biggest challenges we had ever put before the students," Colgate said. Another instructor in the course, David Kelso, associate professor of biomedical engineering, said work of this type usually requires a master's degree.
But the students--Wendy Lin of California, Steve Meier of Texas, Kristin Thomas of Illinois and Mike Zilinskas of Connecticut, now all sophomores--accepted the challenge despite the doubts of experts in the field of prosthetics.
"The kids were terrific," Miller said, "And I knew deep down they were going to do it."
In only 10 weeks time, the students got a crash course in prosthetic design from Dudley Childress, professor of biomedical engineering and director of Northwestern's Prosthetics Research Laboratory; got to know the limitations and needs of their client; came up with a design for a workable device; and built it. Childress said it was "remarkable" that the students were able to produce a workable design in their first try.
Their design, a Velcro and cloth brace, allows Miller to strap a racket securely to her forearm.
"They sewed it by hand," Miller said. "There's a lot of dedication there." The students have helped her learn to adjust and use the device by playing tennis with her.
Miller is looking forward to being a repeat client for this year's class.
"I want to cross-country ski," she said.
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