The desk was covered with deceptively simple items: thick, easy-to-grasp silicone stands that hold toothbrushes, bright red pencil grips and a set of whimsical purple pencil grips shaped like curly fries.
The child-like items are far from simple, however: Designed and produced over many months by two Foothill College students, they're the products of a biomedical device engineering program that is breaking new ground for the two-year community college.
In one of the five new biomedical engineering classes Foothill now offers, students were tasked with an open-ended project: Design a handle for a child with disabilities, inspired by a need for a toothbrush handle for a child patient at the school's dental hygiene clinic. Unexpectedly, that academic assignment has reached beyond the classroom and into the real world to help local children.
Both the biomedical engineering program and this project are rare for a two-year community college like Foothill, where students typically go to catch up on credits or stop as a transition between high school or a job and a four-year university.
"It's not very typical for a community college to do projects like this," said Oxana Pantchenko, a Foothill engineering professor who developed and is now leading the new program. "Usually it's about class work -- completing your classes, transferring, doing your thing -- but if you can get your hands dirty prior to transferring or getting your degree while, in the meantime, helping out thousands of others," the better, she said.
Foothill student Marcela Puerta, who's been interested in medicine since she was a child, said she appreciated the opportunity to not only be creative and explore a career interest but have a direct impact on a child's life.
"It's something that's relevant that we can put on our resumes versus a regular job like a Starbucks job or a restaurant job. Those are OK, but they don't give you that much more push," she said. "It's fulfilling because we're helping children."
Puerta spent all of winter quarter designing and producing the 3-D-printed grips, starting by drafting models on paper or a whiteboard before moving to 3-D-design software. Despite the end results' apparent simplicity, it took many, many iterations to get it exactly right, she said.
With a donation from Joe Goodman, a former professor and dean at the Stanford School of Engineering who now serves on Foothill's Science Learning Institute Advisory Board, 100 of the handles Puerta and another student, Michelle Le, made in their class this year will be donated to California Children's Services (CCS). That state program provides diagnostic and treatment services, medical case management and physical and occupational therapy services to children and youth under 21 with medical conditions like cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, heart disease and cancer. CCS of Santa Clara County operates a medical therapy program at Juana Briones Elementary School in Palo Alto.
Occupational therapists at multiple local California Children's Services sites will be able to use the handles to work one-on-one with patients with grasping disabilities.
After connecting with California Children's Services, several occupational therapists asked Pantchenko and her students if they could work on another much-needed item, which has become the Foothill team's summer project.
Children with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (AMC) are born with joints that have become permanently fixed in a bent or straightened position, restricting movement of that joint. If an elbow is affected, for example, the child might not be able to lift the arm. Muscles can also remain underdeveloped as a result. The severity of the condition ranges, but it can affect a child's shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, hips, knees and feet.
One aid that was created to help children with AMC is a metal exoskeleton, called WREX, that uses resistance bands to mimic the movement of joints. But the exoskeleton is bulky and only works when attached to a wheelchair or chair. One "arm" costs $2,000, Pantchenko said.
An improvement on the exoskeleton was created with 3-D-printed plastic arms that attach to a more flexible plastic vest, meaning the child can not only move joints but also run and play more freely. But Magic Arms, which produces the new product, is completely overloaded with the demand and couldn't help California Children's Services patients.
So CCS turned to Pantchenko, who enlisted Puerta and Andres Camelo, a Foothill graduate with a background in science and mechanical engineering who now works at the community college as a 3-D printing and prototype development lab technician. Puerta designed the model, with input from Pantchenko and Camelo, and Camelo oversaw the printing process. He advised Puerta on what would and wouldn't work with the Stratasys printer, which layers sheet after sheet of gel. One iteration of the arm took 23 hours to print.
Camelo himself wore a similar exoskeleton vest for several years after breaking his back when he was younger, so he understands the need to create a more lightweight, flexible device, he said.
The challenge was to create a single device that is printed in one fell swoop, requiring no assembly. Puerta and Camelo had to tweak their design so each part could print within the next, supplemented by softer support material that they would later wash away with water, leaving the hard, cured plastic of the exoskeleton arm.
"That's something that's completely impossible to do with metal, completely impossible to do with lots of materials," Pantchenko said.
3-D printing has completely revolutionized the field of biomedical engineering, enabling everything from 3-D-printed bone replacements to implants to printed versions of patients' organs that their surgeons can practice on before an actual surgery.
Foothill acquired several 3-D printers about a year and a half ago and has continued to add to a state-of-the-art lab that is not only used by students but is also now open to the public. Anyone can submit a design and specifications to Pantchenko, who will review it, offer a quote for payment and then print the item.
In this open-source spirit, the students' exoskeleton design will be posted on the Foothill website this fall for anyone with access to a 3-D printer to use, free of charge. Pantchenko said there are more than 500,000 children with AMC who could use such a device -- which, compared to the WREX arm, only costs $100 to print. The design can also easily be enlarged as a child grows, Pantchenko said.
Foothill modeled its new biomedical engineering program after the closest community college they could find that offered something similar, in Minnesota. The Foothill program offers classes on five topics: introduction to biomedical device engineering, design and manufacturing, medical device regulations, quality assurance and documentation. Speakers from the industry and academia have given guest lectures; and students were connected with local organizations for internships, such as the Hanger Clinic, a longtime national orthotics and prosthetics company with a location in Mountain View, and the Fogarty Institute for Innovation, a medical device and therapy innovation center based at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View.
Thirty students enrolled the first year of the program.
Foothill also has an agreement with Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo's biomedical engineering program -- one of the nation's top undergraduate programs -- so students who come out of Foothill can transfer to Cal Poly without repeating any courses.
The ongoing exoskeleton project was an additional, unanticipated internship. Puerta and Camelo are continuing to work this summer to customize the device for a young boy with AMC who is a patient at California Children's Services in San Jose. (Inspired by his current obsession with Spiderman, his exoskeleton will be designed to look like its covered in spiderwebs.) Two more AMC patients have been identified and will also receive the redesigned exoskeleton, on top of the CCS patients with varying physical disabilities who will benefit from the 100 donated handles.